A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.
Practically every time we saw Phoebe Bridgers in 2020, she was wearing a full-body skeleton costume.
On her album cover. In her videos. In her remote appearances on late night television. In her one-off performances – one of the worthiest among them a quiet cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” recorded in a London church. In each case, she’s sporting a classic black suit of white skeleton bones, marking this time of perpetual Halloween.
In her video for “I Know the End,” she’s wearing the skeleton suit while nearly drowning in a bathtub. At one point, she climbs out of the water and steps dripping wet into a locker room – where in each locker hangs the same skeleton suit, one after another after another. She has, it seems, an endless supply.
“I Know the End” is the stunning finale of Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore solo album Punisher – my 28th annual Album of the Year. “Punisher” was released amid a deadly, incompetently mismanaged pandemic and raging civil unrest over the continuing murder of Black people by an out-of-control police force. Its original release date was discarded in deference to Juneteenth.
Though Punisher was written and recorded in 2018 and 2019, its mix of hope, sadness, irony and a lingering sense of dread feels inspired by current events – even as they are still unfolding today.
Those of us quarantined at home have watched helplessly as the body count grows, hoping it won’t take us, too – or our parents or grandparents. That it won’t keep our children out of school any longer or force us out of our jobs. The only thing we’ve prayed to lose this year is our psychopathic president.
So Bridgers’ Halloween fashion, all things considered, made a ton of sense – even down to simply wearing the same comfy outfit every day. Why change your pants for a Zoom call, why do laundry, why try to put a fresh scent and unwrinkled polish on what for many was the worst year in America they’d ever seen?
Make no mistake, Punisher is a record worthy of any year. “DVD Menu” starts it with an orchestral foreshadowing, only to be reprised at the end of the record, bringing the haunting full circle. “Garden Song” has one of the most sublimely lo-fi guitar hooks you’ll hear, a pulsing heartbeat from under a blanket of snow. “Kyoto” (like other tracks on Punisher) touches on the ludicrousness of being a touring musician – how finding yourself in an alien land, far from the comfort of your bedroom is not always all it’s cracked up to be. “I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind.” Later, in “Chinese Satellite” Bridgers sings, “I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself / Why would somebody do this on purpose / When they could do something else?” Heard in 2020, traveling the world, performing songs over and over – as absurd and as strange a calling as it might be – seems very much worth doing on purpose, especially when you can’t do it anymore.
The title track – an ode to the late Elliot Smith – is both a song about fan obsession and an earnest tribute to a dead musician. A love song to a dead person you admire works anytime; it especially works now. There is also, fittingly, a song called “Halloween,” which features a purposely tasteless joke about living near a hospital and sucks the joy from the holiday by focusing its limited powers on trying to conjure one final flicker out of a dying relationship.
There’s so much more to love on Punisher, but let’s go back to the finale: “I Know the End” contains the most telling and memorable moment on the record. As the album approaches its climax, Bridgers is riding down the highway in her car, screaming along to an “America First rap country song” with her windows rolled down. Bridgers sings:
The billboard said “The End Is Near”
I turned around, there was nothing there
Yeah, I guess the end is here
Yes, this might sound tongue-in-cheek – a wink-wink chem trails reference and an earnest wish to be whisked away by aliens from earlier in the record is also consistent with surviving our time of alternative facts and unending conspiracy theories. But the record never faces fear more head-on than as the song and album concludes with a chorus of voices singing “The end is here” in unison as the “DVD Menu” reprise swells beneath.
As you listen, you are free to choose whether to laugh or scream along with her. She does both in the closing seconds. Vaccines are coming but we’re still dying, and in numbers greater than before. We’ve elected a new president for 2021 but the current one’s dangerous mental health issues will continue to poison the country for the foreseeable future. Which is why – even on the best days of this Halloween year – it’s hard to deny what we’ve all wondered sometimes: Maybe the end really is here.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.