(ESSAY) A Grief Album: Chasing Ghosts and Aliens in Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher
Angela Deane, On My Way
Reflecting on personal experience and proximity to grief, Kat Sinclair explores Phoebe Bridgers' album Punisher (Dead Oceans, 2020) by way of its various hauntings, from aliens to ghosts and conspiracy theories. This essay asks how we might approach writing about death and dying, belief, dream life and laments both public and private, reaching towards something of a panorama that meets a hesitant 'end' in the overlay of ceiling and sky, call and response.
> June was a grief month. All months are grief months; it’s always happy hour somewhere, and every day is a blessing, etc. But for me, June was a Grief Month. My grandad died, my terminally ill father was recovering from a second craniotomy, and Phoebe Bridgers released her sophomore solo album: Punisher.
> We were, a lot of us, in pandemic lockdown. I was very angry all the time, and I was trying to write in my diary like I wasn’t low-level thinking of it as my own private Journal of the Plague Year. But everything was significant, and annoying, and tweeted. I couldn’t write about death without feeling cheap, but I was thinking about death all the time. Reading about death was difficult, because the tiny Review of Books in my mind wouldn’t shut up; everything was essays, everything was oh so relevant.
> But there was the grief album. There was Punisher.
> I spend a lot of time with the ‘grief album’. The most immediately obvious examples for me are Kettering by The Antlers and A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie, which take death and dying as concepts which guide the whole work. Grief albums aren’t just ‘albums about death’, though. Phoebe Bridgers sings far less directly about some of the feelings and experiences which constitute the foundations of loss, a structure both rickety and sound. You could listen through and only get snatches of it, if you’re not already thinking about death at the time. But I’m a connoisseur of grief: I smell it everywhere, swill it round and taste it, comment on the notes and flavours. Punisher is, to me, a grief album.
> There is death everywhere in Punisher. In ‘Moon Song’, Bridgers references the deaths of Eric Clapton’s baby and John Lennon, complicated by her hatred of ‘Tears in Heaven’ and (I assume) John Lennon’s history of abuse. Bridgers also communicates directly with the dead, as on the title track, in which she talks to Elliott Smith, saying ‘What if I told you / I feel like I know you? But we never met’. These are songs which are intimately tied to the dead, and indebted to them in myriad twisting ways.
> Music and grief have a long combined history. I am particularly fascinated by the concept of professional mourning, the death wail, a keening, lament, requiem. I hear echoes of this history in the wailing at the end of ‘I Know the End’. The album sets up these moments of howling emotion against lines which try to negate it all, singing in ‘Chinese Satellite’ ‘I want to believe, but I look up at the sky and I feel nothing.’ Bridgers professing to ‘feel nothing’ is a direct affront to the public demand of grief and depression, that one should not vocalise one’s numbness. To loudly feel nothing. I suppose not every professional mourner in history felt the sadness they professed to feel.
Collective wailing in Midsommar (2019, dir. Ari Aster)
> It is not only the direct confrontation with death that, for me, makes this an album about death. It is the trying, the failing, the wanting, the not getting, the still hoping, the stopping still and feeling nothing, everything we want to see when we stare up at the sky.
> They go together, ghosts and aliens. They’re there at adolescent sleepovers, asking whether you believe in them; on the TV, in monster of the week shows; in children’s fiction, most notably the Goosebumps series. There was another question that made an appearance at sleepovers when I was in my teens, attending a Catholic girls’ school, one shakily whispered at two in the morning: do you believe in God?
> It was The X-Files that drew together my thoughts about faith and the extraterrestrial. The question of religious faith made the relationship between Mulder and Scully more complex. Mulder ‘wants to believe’ in aliens, but is a skeptic when it comes to God; Scully is considered to be the more classically ‘rational’ of the pair, but she’s Catholic. Religion is confronted in The X-Files mostly in connection with loss. In the fourth episode, Mulder sits in a church gazing at a photo of his missing sister. His search for proof of the extraterrestrial, too, is motivated by loss. In the show’s most famous exploration of religion, ‘Beyond the Sea’, Scully engages with a psychic in the aftermath of her father’s death. Belief in the supernatural and the extraterrestrial are compounded and complicated by loss, and people shift and change as they search for answers.
A very blurry Mulder in Church, looking at a picture of his missing sister (The X-Files, S01E04)
> The other big death episode of supernatural 90s TV is Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ‘The Body’, which has no soundtrack, supposedly just like ‘real death’. Death, to me, is music. It’s my dad revisiting all the albums of his youth when he goes to bed at eight in the evening, sitting up and playing Solitaire. It’s Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ and David Bowie’s ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’.
> The day before my dad’s first craniotomy, I sat on the back step and looked up at the sky – stars and light pollution – and I prayed.
> Anticipatory grief is strange, a rotting mix of hopelessness suffocating useless sparks of hope. A carefully cultivated display of acceptance, interspersed with controlled histrionics, so self-aware, no emotion ever feels real enough, you can only see yourself in terms of where you sit in the narrative. You’re craving the feeling of being observed when you don’t know it; being seen when you’re not obsessed with the presentation of your own emotions, with whether they’re sincere enough. Grief makes me crave a secret voyeur, in the sky or under the bed. So in my head I, who cannot drive, head down the highway of another country and stare up at a bigger sky. Maybe there’s someone there. It doesn’t matter, really, because I’m not.
(When these ugly feelings make themselves known, I’m kicking the wall of the bank on the high street until my shoe falls apart. I want everyone to see, from the vantage point of a UFO or the window of the Starbucks across the way.)
> ‘Garden Song’ is soft, but it allows me back into that complicated rage; a hand held out that I push aside in disgust before changing my mind and dropping to my knees. Forgive me, I forgot myself. Can I have that hand back?
And when I grow up I'm gonna look up from my phone and see my life And it's gonna be just like My recurring dream I'm at the movies I don't remember what I'm seeing
Anticipatory grief is like that, the recurring dream, or looking up from your phone. It’s like a stupid new episode of Black Mirror. Every day. I wonder how real grief will feel, and I know I’ll find out when I grow up. Then I wonder again, and I know again.
> The certainty with which Bridgers declares that she’ll ‘ghost [her] friends’ is comforting to me. I tell people often that ‘I will be weird and distant for a long time’. I’ve already cut back on social media, and if that isn’t a ghostly twenty-first century act I don’t know what is. The profiles are there, but less active, window panes occasionally shuddering against the wind. I won’t be able to reply to all the messages I know I’ll get. I’ll exist in memory when they’re thinking of me and not at all when they’re not. I think the fact that some people just carry on, will continue to do so (I’m always living in the present and past tenses at once) is the hardest part –– that they will carry on and he will not and I both will and won’t at once. I’ll be haunted by both of us. (Sometimes I think it’s easier to just give up and become a ghost than it is to try your hand at believing. I am cultivating translucence.)
> My dad is a mathematician, I know that on a balance of probability he will die soon, and I know that it doesn’t stop me wondering. It won’t stop me wondering either, when he does, whether I’m hearing him ‘through the walls’. I wake, often, at three in the morning. I think I can hear screaming, like I did the first time, when the tumour first made itself known. It’s not real now, but it will be even less real soon, to wake and hear it happening again.
> The people I meet in the future won’t be any less real for not having known him, but I have to make them so, because if I don’t, then he becomes a ghost. (And he’s still alive, right now!) But they will never know him, he will always be less real than me, to them. He will always be a part of my past, to them.
> All of this to say that I am so grateful for Bridgers presenting me with the contradiction which allows me to make the most sense of this year: ‘The end is near. . .the end is here’. It is always both, at once, approaching and surrounding. I can see it on the horizon even as I sit on its shores.
> Even after, I know that I will have the grief album. When the end is here, now or later, I can join in with that cacophony of screams and have my private lament.
> Punisher is very much an album for wide American highways, for a flat Midwestern landscape. I don’t drive, and besides – the roads are smaller here. So is the sky. If I could be anywhere I would be back in 2015, in Kansas with my friend, laying down in the back of their truck in a church car park and feeling the weight of all those stars. Still, the album takes me there, flattens the landscape around me, widens the world a bit.
> Driving down the wide Texan road that is ‘I Know the End’, Bridgers sings ‘Everyone’s convinced / it’s a government drone or alien spaceship’. Perhaps what’s behind some conspiracy theories is the desire for that constant invisible presence, God or some little green men. (Cancer is also like this, constant and unseen. It feels like a conspiracy most days.)
> I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ll look for them anyway. I am, probably, more likely to have an alien encounter than ever see my dad again. We live in a time of peak I Want to Believe. We want to believe ‘things will get better’, that this isn’t the end of the world, the climate, that this is the end of capitalism. 2020 is saturated with conspiracy theories, false hope, real hope, endless spiralling movements propelled by faith and claims.
Hell is Real sign in Ohio (Hayden Schiff, Flickr)
> Sometimes, I let myself believe that the cancer isn’t there. I can’t see it, after all.
> I’m not the only one.
> Waking up in the recovery room after his first craniotomy, my dad told the surgeon (and me, hours later) that he’d had a dream.
You came in and told me you’d made a mistake, that the scans had got mixed up and there was never anything there. Everything is fine.
When she told him she was sorry, that the surgery had gone well, that they had removed almost all of the tumour, that it was the size of a squash ball––all of this is taken on faith, too. Faith and a pounding headache. Maybe she was lying, maybe this was the dream, maybe he’s a proverbial fucking butterfly.
> After the second craniotomy, he threw up for ten hours straight and didn’t dream at all.
> It’s as if it doesn’t matter what, exactly, the ‘something’ to believe in ends up being, as long as it is something – we want to feel that ‘either way, we’re not alone’. Anything would make more sense than nothing.
I don’t think it’s necessary for me to delve into my own personal eschatology for it to be legible to anybody that when someone is gone – from this world or forever – they leave behind a nothing that wasn’t there before.
Went looking for a creation myth Ended up with a pair of cracked lips
Over the coast, everyone's convinced It's a government drone or alien spaceship Either way, we're not alone I'll find a new place to be from A haunted house with a picket fence To float around and ghost my friends No, I'm not afraid to disappear The billboard said the end is near I turned around, there was nothing there Yeah, I guess the end is here
There is resignation in ‘Yeah, I guess the end is here’, the resignation of a final track – on an album about searching for, reaching for, and not finding or grasping – which comes to rest on the not-quite-acceptance of an ending. It doesn’t matter if you’re ready for it, you’re already in it.
> It reminds me of conversations I’ve had with alien conspiracists. ‘They’re already here, they’re among us.’ You don’t need to look up at the sky anymore, you only have to be here, in the world. That’s enough.
(The relief in not having to go looking for a creation myth, in having one handed to you by the internet or a man at a party who won’t shut up but the droning voice is kind of lulling you to sleep, tell me more.)
(The relief in not having to deal with a relative or friend who has cancer, not really, not having to comfort their family in any tangible way, because you can send them the link to a pyramid scheme, a new age therapy, some snake oil but endorsed this time by some guy you met in Atlanta so you know it’s legit.)
(The relief of the unreal coming to rest on the real and saying it’s okay, you don’t have to bear it today, let me hold you. I want a weighted blanket of everything that cannot be confirmed or denied to push me down into the sofa for a while.)
(The relief of it not ending there, of the album carrying on for a while after, of the screaming. It’s not the end, it only says it is.)
> The cover art for Bridgers’ first album, Stranger in the Alps, features a ghost; cartoonish and friendly-looking, bright in the daytime against a rural backdrop. It is by artist Angela Deane, who I’ve loved for years in an ‘always seeing her on my Tumblr dash in 2016’ way. They’re sweet photos, they make me oddly nostalgic.
Ghosts by Angela Deane
> The cover art for Punisher features Bridgers in a skeleton onesie, staring up at the night sky. The liner art too is all bones and shadow. It’s more painful to me, the presence of a human, the image of Bridgers herself––looking skywards, searching and wanting. It’s closer to home. I am not a ghost after all, but I am a skeleton. Stranger in the Alps looks backwards, Punisher looks up.
> Where Stranger in the Alps presents the makings of a life-so-far, cupped in outheld hands, Punisher digs into the present and finds nothing there, finds the world wanting. I’m drawn back again to ‘Chinese Satellite’, to ‘Swore I could feel you through the walls / but that’s impossible’, which I’m coming to think is the most important line in the album. The way Bridgers’ voice seems to crack––that’s a thesis at the centre of a work. Everything else is uncertain tendrils growing out from that broken centre.
> The natural counterpoint to ‘Chinese Satellite’ is ‘Smoke Signals’, which ends on the assertion that ‘You are anonymous, I am a concrete wall’. Bridgers has thought it through and come to a conclusion. I can hear no conclusions on Punisher, even ‘that’s impossible’ lives in the subjunctive, in the space between doubt and hope.
> Stranger in the Alps reads to me like an answer, a response to the call of your teenage years, an initial mission statement. Punisher, like any good sophomore album, raises more questions. What now, and where?
> While I was writing this piece, my dad was told he has a new tumour, and that they can’t operate. The chemo isn’t working, the next step is palliative care.
> I emailed him the link to a song I’ve been keeping like a secret since his diagnosis: ‘I’ve Got You’ by Camp Cope. He liked it. The song is about Georgia Maq’s dad, who died from cancer in 2016.
> I need different grief music for different things. I keep a playlist for all the songs that give me some relief, just to have them tucked away there. I would never listen to the playlist in full, but today I needed reminding that ‘Cancer’ by My Chemical Romance is a song that exists, and it was waiting there for me.
> I needed him to hear that Camp Cope song before he dies. It says a lot of what I want to make sure he knows in that time: ‘I am so proud that half of me grew from you / all the broken parts too’.
> Then I needed to lay back in my own bed, open my eyes, and look up at the ceiling like it was a sky. It doesn’t make total sense to read Punisher the way I do, to have folded it so fully into myself that I will always associate it with death and dying. But if the album itself is what I find when I tilt my head up and beg for something to believe in, then I’ll take it. She is wearing that skeleton suit, after all.
Chinese Satellite – Phoebe Bridgers
I’ve Got You – Camp Cope
Kettering – The Antlers
I Know the End – Phoebe Bridgers
Matthew 25:21 – the Mountain Goats
Flesh and Electricity – Camp Cope
Cancer – My Chemical Romance
Burn – Nervus
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide – David Bowie
Chemo Limo – Regina Spektor
Punisher is out now and available to order/stream via Dead Oceans.
Text: Kat Sinclair Published: 27/10/20