Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers is the master of emotive storytelling. She didn’t reinvent or revolutionize the art of it though, and she’s not pretending that she has. “I think I'm pulling from a lot of different places, stealing from a lot of different people,” she said in an interview with NPR.
Most overtly, she “steals” from idol Elliott Smith, his name all but mentioned on title track Punisher. Here, she details her self-proclaimed “obsession” for Smith and addresses the song directly to him, using his conventions. The opening lines, the chorus, her signature double tracking and detailed storytelling all hark back to his work. But Smith isn’t the only clear influence here— frequent collaborator and bandmate Conor Oberst has his share on the lyrics, and the pops of baroque instrumentation are reminiscent of Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens.
However, Punisher isn’t about Bridgers’s obsessions and idols so much as it’s an honest exploration of where she finds inspiration for her music. Oftentimes, her lyrics read like quiet ruminations, unfurling to reveal intimate details that grapple with personal and interpersonal relationships at their most unsettling. Bridgers thumbtacks specific moments, ideations and people that have impacted her and, in many ways, haunted her on this album. The lyrics get so intimate and vulnerable that they sometimes feel as though they shouldn’t make sense to anyone outside of that experience. There’s a moment on “Garden Song” I revisit often that goes: “The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment’s getting smaller.” Lines like this have connotations that are poignant enough to stick around long after the song is over. Bridgers balances the very personal, sometimes emotionally scarring details of her lyrics with her soft, dreamy instrumentation and her gentle voice.
I’ve spent nearly every day of summer in private conversation with Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher. So much so, it soundtracks many memories for me. It’s not that complicated: The future is indecipherable most days, so, much like the album, my mind retreats to more private moments of the past.
Diana Yassin — Daily Arts Writer
Taylor Swift, folklore
As a shameless Swiftie, folklore was the answer to my summer music prayers. It wasn’t just because one of my favorite artists had released an album I didn’t see coming, it was also because it arrived just when I needed it the most. A few days after its release, I ended a long-term relationship and wore “Cardigan” like a warm blanket for the following weeks. Its imaginative, love-sick mood comforted me and reminded me of why young love is such a powerful thing. And that’s what Taylor does best — she romanticizes love in a way that makes us feel nostalgic for lost relationships and missed chances, even if we’ve never experienced them first-hand.
Many critics say that folklore sounds a lot like Swift’s older music, but I have to disagree. While I can certainly see where they’re coming from — folklore is more tame than Swift’s previous releases Reputation and Lover — the album possesses an organic sound that we’ve never seen in Taylor’s work before. In a moment when the world is overwhelmed by all of the bad things going on, it’s nice to sit with Taylor’s soft acoustic songs and take a moment just to dream. folklore is a dreamy ode to love, filled with allusions to fairy tales and stories Swift came up with herself for the album.
Perhaps the most striking part of folklore is that Taylor created the album from start to finish all while in isolation. The fact that she was able to write an entire album, record it, and then market it with a killer music video is impressive, but this project is also a sign of hope during these troubling times. Even while we’re apart from the people we love and longing for life to return to some form of normalcy, folklore reminds us that there’s still a space to create and dream.
Kaitlyn Fox — Daily Arts Writer
Music has been a crutch for everyone during 2020. For a lot of us, we went back and listened to music from our childhood or adolescent years, or even dove head first into new types of music. This year has been rough for the music industry in countless, unimaginable ways. Inevitably, music persists, adapting to change. Taylor Swift has tapped into and thrived off of this change, capturing this summer of solitude with folklore.
Swift never fails to surprise the world with her various eras, ever-changing from album to album. 2019’s Lover was both a fan favorite as well as a critical success. It was arguably Swift’s most masterful look into the beauty of love, which many know was inspired by her long term partner, Joe Alwyn.
folklore was a bigger Swift surprise than usual, to say the least. One of the biggest departures from her last two albums, reputation and Lover, folklore is everything Taylor Swift hadn’t done yet. The album is simple and digestible. It has some of Swift’s most powerful lyrics and showcases her wildly impressive vocal range. The understated aesthetic of the album, from the simple cover to the lowercase stylization of the song titles, makes the beauty of each song stand out more. Swift has taken a step back from the spotlight on this album, leaving each song to speak for itself without any of the drama or glitz of her 2017 and 2019 releases.
The album itself is raw, but it really came out at the perfect time. A breakup-esque, escapist album in the middle of a pandemic is something the world needed. Who better to get it from than Swift, the girl who writes about love and heartbreak better than anyone else?
Giselle Ciulla — Daily Arts Writer
Deerhoof, Future Teenage Cave Artists
If there was any band that could pull off a concept album about the youth population living through an absurdist’s post-apocalyptic world, it would be Deerhoof. The experimental rock group hailing from San Francisco has been going on for more than two decades at this point, and they aren’t getting any easier to define stylistically. With Future Teenage Cave Artists, they moved towards a more narrative approach.
The brilliant songwriting and texture play is what really allows the concept to come alive. The atmosphere can only be described as a cross between an “Adventure Time” episode on acid and a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape. The guitar tones, of which there are numerous across the album, vary from downright face-melting to grotesquely playful. The drums are played in such a drunken haphazardness that it leaves the listener either in awe of the talent or concerned for the drummer's wellbeing. Add the iconic high pitched singing of Satomi Matsuzaki and what’s left is a final product that both excites and unnerves.
Perhaps the best part about Future Teenage Cave Artists is that it isn’t reliant on its narrative to be great. While it’s true that the stylistic choices they made create a world, it isn’t totally obvious at first what that world is. The greatest indicator might be the title itself. After several listens, it slowly becomes more clear what the band is trying to communicate. As amazing as Deerhoof is at building a dystopian world that blurs the line between fun and nightmarish, they are just as great at crafting a collection of absurd rock and pop bangers. Honestly, there might not be a better summer for it.
Drew Gadbois — Daily Arts Writer
The Chicks, Gaslighter
In the same manner as Beyonce’s Lemonade, Gaslighter is a chronological, sonically explorative case study of a broken relationship. The “girl who left the tights” on lead singer Natalie Maines’ boat, a recurring motif on the record, might as well be the countrified “Becky with the good hair.” But this time, the story ends in divorce. “Gaslighter! Denier!” Maines fumes on the explosive title track. Backed by the trio’s signature harmonies, she points a finger at her now ex-husband in what feels like the moment she discovered his infidelity. Assisted by Jack Antonoff, The Chicks expand their sound to layer sleek pop production atop Emily Strayer’s banjo rolls and Martie Maguire’s fiddle riffs while tracking Maines’ healing process. The album ranges from devastated confusion in “Everybody Loves You” to spiteful taunts in “Tights on My Boat” to acoustic-sounding acceptance. While the specificity of many lyrics on the record point to Maines’ ex as the gaslighter in question, the presence of a certain national gaslighter can be felt as well. More explicitly, “March March” name checks Emma Gonzalez and takes a stance on climate change, abortion rights and the current presidental administration.
While it’s hard to believe that 2020 could make for the best circumstances to launch a musical comeback, Gaslighter couldn’t have had better timing. Brusquely political and peppered with unabashed take downs, it’s a fiery condemnation of personal and universal gaslighters alike. Plus, in changing their name, The Chicks have proven themselves unafraid to practice what they preach. “Wish I could go back and tell my younger self you’re a fighter, you just don’t know it yet,” Maines reflects in “For Her.” If there’s anything we needed to hear this summer, it’s a reminder to keep fighting.
Katie Beekman — Daily Arts Writer
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, BACK When They Called It Music: The ‘90s, Vol. 1
At the time of its release, the latest album of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox was set to be the triumphant commencement of the Roaring ‘20s revival. Instead, March 2020 now recalls the beginnings of our ongoing “apocalypse.” Things are certainly roaring –– just not quite as the world imagined. Nonetheless, Bradlee’s BACK When They Called It Music: The ‘90s, Vol. 1 provides a suitable, jazzy balm to the bleak monotony of quarantine.
Postmodern Jukebox is every nostalgia-lover’s dream: Featuring a vibrant cast of musicians, Bradlee and his band take modern classics and add a vintage-twist. BACK When They Called It Music is a delightful reimagining of throwback hits from the ‘90s. This latest release is a fever dream. Who would have thought that a jazz rendition of Smashmouth’s “All Star” would work so well? From Blackstreet and Dr. Dre’s “No Diggity,” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” BACK When They Called It Music covers all the bases. In fact, the album tracklist would be laughable if not for how much fun it all is (“Friends” iconic theme song, anyone?).
Old time fans will enjoy the fresh take, and the previously uninspired may be willing to take another dive into the ‘90s music scene. BACK When They Called It Music is a little strange, a bit wild, and thoroughly enjoyable. Perhaps we can’t bust down to Bradlee’s band at the local block party, but there’s definitely enough energy in this album for a skeleton-crew bash á la quarantine.
As featured artists Therese Curatolo, Olivia Harris, and Sara Niemietz croon on the first track, “Wannabe,” “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want” –– some more Postmodern Jukebox!
Madeline Virginia Gannon — Daily Arts Writer