A singer-songwriter can spend months, if not years, writing new songs and yet how often are the lyrics to their songs studied in depth? Is it possible to like a whole album and not listen to any of the lyrics? Is it possible for me to love listening to an album when I appreciate the words but don’t like the voice, melody or instrumentation. For some people, the words are the key element but for me I think the sound of the album is more important and the quality of the writing is an added extra bonus. I don’t think many of Van Morrison’s lyrics are that great but up until yesterday (when he released songs that claimed that restrictions due to Covid are simply there to enslave people), I loved his music. Bob Dylan’s lyrics are, of course, worthy of deep examination and yield understand decades later, but I don’t think I would quite so obsessive if his music wasn’t interesting.
Peter and I discussed Phoebe Bridgers’ new album, “Punisher”, yesterday. I had listened to it on three levels prior to our discussion. On Tuesday afternoon, I had fallen asleep to it in the garden – it has a lovely relaxing sound but I’m not sure anyone would market it as “an album to fall asleep to”. It doesn’t sound good. On Thursday afternoon, I studied the lyrics carefully whilst listening to it. To be honest, the complexity of the lyrics was overwhelming and I thought that I couldn’t ever like the music. Yesterday morning, I listened to the album another three times: over breakfast and as I
dragged Bruno through the fields took Bruno for a walk. At that point, I loved it. Loved it so much that I didn’t want to forget about it and I wanted to explore it further so I sent off for a CD from Resident Records (as I have finally decided to stop using Amazon).
The most accessible song on the album is the third track “Kyoto”. It is more uptempo, catchy, poppy, foot tapping, singalong, infectious, etc than anything else on the album. It’s really good. Phoebe Bridgers has described the song as about “wanting to be where I’m not”. When on tour, she wants to be at home and vice versa. It also appears to be about the complicated relationship she has with her father. “You’re getting sober and you wrote me a letter but I don’t have to read it.” Now, how do I know that this refers to her father? I’ve read it on a website called “Genius” on which you can find the lyrics to practically any song. People are invited to interpret the words and some of these interpretations are given the accolade of “genius annotation”, so presumably by people who have a history of not writing rubbish.
My confusion about whether or not I have the patience to explore this album in depth is exemplified by the lyrics to the second track, “Garden Song”. Like most of the songs on the album, it’s low key and slow with Phoebe Bridgers’ sweet voice recorded very intimately. There’s also some very interesting instrumentation.
On “Apple Music”, Phoebe bridges has written about “Garden Song”. “It’s very much about dreams and manifesting. It’s about all your good thoughts that you have becoming real, and all the shitty stuff that you think becoming real, too. If you’re afraid of something all the time, you’re going to look for proof that it happened, or that it’s going to happen. And if you’re a miserable person who thinks that good people die young and evil corporations rule everything, there is enough proof in the world that that’s true. But if you’re someone who believes that good people are doing amazing things no matter how small, and that there’s beauty or whatever in the midst of all the darkness, you’re going to see that proof, too. And you’re going to ignore the dark shit, or see it and it doesn’t really affect your worldview. It’s about fighting back dark, evil murder thoughts and feeling like if I really want something, it happens, or it comes true in a totally weird, different way than I even expected.”
That sounds interesting to me but I would have no idea that this is what the song is about unless I subscribed to Apple Music or read the “Genius” website. What I keep wondering is whether or not I need to fully understand the words to a song to appreciate it to the maximum? I wrote a month ago about “Angelina”, a Bob Dylan song that first appeared on Volume three of his Bootleg Series. Michael Gray wrote sixteen pages analysing the lyrics to this song and it was fascinating for me to read this. In that case, I think a better understanding of the words helps me love the song. On the other hand, I loved it anyway because his delivery and the instrumentation are both excellent. That is also the case with “Punisher”, this album by Phoebe Bridgers. She has a good voice, a little whispery at times but the production is endlessly interesting with lots of subtle things going on. For example, there’s a song towards the end called “Graceland Too” which has some lovely fiddle by Sara Watkins on it. I should investigate Watkins Family Hour’s new album “Brother Sister”. I’m rambling. Let’s get back to “Garden Song” and explore the words to the first verse. The interpretations are all copied from the Genius website.
“Someday, I’m gonna live/In your house up on the hill”. Phoebe Bridgers is in thrall to Elliott Smith, a singer who died in 2003 and he wrote a song called “From A Basement On The Hill” – he literally lived in a house on a hill.
“When your skinhead neighbor goes missing/ I’ll plant a garden in the yard“. The speaker implies she’d murdered a skinhead neighbour, burying them in her yard. This is in stark contrast to the imagery procured in the previous line of an elevated level of contentment in her “house up on the hill”. Later in the song she sings “Everything’s growing in our garden
/You don’t have to know that it’s haunted” which is interpreted as the garden is haunted by the murdered skinhead from the beginning of the song. Can you cultivate peace and beauty from violence? When we look at our own personal and spiritual growth, do we care how it was cultivated? That the present is built on destruction? Like the childhood home that went down in flames except for the notches in the doorway, perhaps it’s only the growth that matters.
“They’re gluing roses on a flatbed/You should see it, I mean thousands” A reference to the decoration of all of the floats the week or so before the Rose Parade in Pasadena, CA.
All of the float entries for the Parade have to be decorated with only flowers or other plant matter. Phoebe’s hometown of Pasadena, CA is nicknamed “The City of Roses.” In this way, the mention of rose is very apt in describing her home. Like many of the images in “Garden Song,” this line juxtaposes the romantic (thousands of roses) with a blunt realism (gluing things onto a flatbed), and leaves the listener to resolve the two.
“I grew up here, ’til it all went up in flames.” When Phoebe Bridgers was twenty, her parents divorced. The year before, their house had caught fire.
“Except the notches in the door frame” These memories are all that remain of the childhood, signifying that she sees that time as fully put behind her.
“I don’t know when you got taller/See our reflection in the water/Off a bridge at the Huntington” This refers to the bridge at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
“I hopped the fence when I was seventeen/Then I knew what I wanted” This bridge is no longer pedestrian safe, and so it’s cordoned off to visitors. Here, she has hopped the fence as a teen and the reflection tells the narrator what she wants out of life.
That’s just the first verse. There’s no way that I could have worked any of that out myself. Does this mean that I can’t appreciate the album? Are some lyrics too clever for their own good? Would this work as poetry?
In summary, here are four things I think about this album. 1) I really like the album. 2) Phoebe Bridgers has put a lot of intelligent and inspired hard graft into writing these songs. 3) It’s possible to enjoy an album even if you don’t fully understand the lyrics. 4) There is so much good music out there. These are the good old days.