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The End Has No End. But We Have Phoebe Bridgers.

On the isolation, unrest, and confusion of 2020 and the song that captures it best

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We still don’t know the end. Start with that. There is a COVID-19 vaccine now, though the sort of person with the time and emotional bandwidth to write a glowing tribute to exquisitely vicious L.A. singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is not exactly first in line to receive it. Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election has been announced every day for the past month, and yet many fine lawyers in this country remain unconvinced. The Lakers just won the NBA championship; the next NBA season has already begun. Cheeky references to the phrase time is a flat circle are funny again. And with apologies to this year’s many other fine musical efforts, I myself am still clinging to the only 2020 song that matters to me, that has consistently comforted me, that truly exists for me, and that is Bridgers’s alluringly pulverizing “I Know the End.” It is the final track (very comforting) on her lavishly praised second album, Punisher. And lyrically, at least, it ends like this:

The end is here
The end is here
The end is here
The end is here
The end is

So at least the end is coming.

We know 2020 is drawing to a merciful close if only because all the music critics’ year-end lists are out, and there sits Punisher at the very top of writer Rob Mitchum’s super-helpful aggregation of all those lists. Bridgers, who if not for COVID would’ve spent much of the spring playing arenas with the 1975, had indeed a monster year both as an artist and as a delightfully acerbic internet presence, the sort of unstoppable multimedia winning streak previously enjoyed by the likes of Cardi B and Billie Eilish. “In Praise of Phoebe Bridgers, a Thoroughly Good Celebrity,” went a Slate headline from November, hailing everything from the white-haired 26-year-old’s fashion sense to her social-media instincts. I am not immune to this lavish praise; I regard this tweet from March, for example, as one of the very few highlights of what is now apparently widely known as “early quar.”

Bridgers’s debut album, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, was itself a critical sensation (per Mitchum, no. 56 overall!), a hushed and serene and shattering collection of indie-folk kill shots: The repeated line “Do you feel ashamed / When you hear my name?” The repeated line “You missed my heart.” The sung-once-but-yikes-it-reverberates line “You were in a band when I was born,” whose hapless target turned out to be very specific. For those of us who long to have sweet and incomprehensibly savage nothings purred directly into our ears, Bridgers was a revelation; in 2018, she aligned with the like-minded breakout stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus in the great trio boygenius, and overall seemed primed to have a tremendous 2020 no matter what 2020 turned out to be like. Though as it turned out, she had no idea.

When I get back I’ll lay around
Then I’ll get up and lay back down
Romanticize a quiet life
There’s no place like my room

Just as an aside, if one happened to be living with a pregnant woman—and then a healthy and relatively blissful baby—throughout the vast majority of 2020, then “early quar” was indistinguishable from “mid-quar” or “late quar” or for that matter “current quar.” Time is an even flatter, smaller circle. And even now, when I take physical- and mental-health walks around my neighborhood late at night with “I Know the End” on repeat, what I fantasize about, with regards to the end, is that it comes in time that the baby’s two older brothers don’t have to have multiple Zoom-only birthday parties. That is all I want. I know how lucky we are. And yet I still want that, specifically. Sorry for the personal aside, but I had no idea what this year would be like, either.

And so Punisher comes out in June, the day after Tenet was originally scheduled for wide release, FWIW. And the kill shots are bathed now in eerie submerged distortion (the “Garden Song” line about her dream where a movie screen turns into a tidal wave sure hits different lately) or buffed to a lethal pop-adjacent shine. (“I’m gonna kill you / If you don’t beat me to it,” begins the trumpet-bolstered first chorus to “Kyoto.”) The album’s single gnarliest line, from the elegantly dazed waltz “Moon Song,” calls out Eric Clapton directly: “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’ / But it’s sad that his baby died.” In interviews Bridgers doesn’t back down, dismissing Clapton as a “famous racist” who “makes mediocre music,” and in December Clapton joins forces with Van Morrison to release a clueless anti-COVID-lockdown tune called “Stand and Deliver,” and, well, choose your fighter, I guess. From Bridgers’s perspective, that’s just the sort of good fortune one receives in the court of public opinion during one’s Cardi B Year.

(The nominally starker “Savior Complex,” meanwhile, has a new video directed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and starring Normal People hunk Paul Mescal, a hilarious game of Maximum Internet Adoration Mad Libs. When you’re hot, you’re hot.)

Punisher’s title track is yet another elegantly dazed waltz that pays tribute to Bridgers’s single biggest influence: “I wrote a song about how, if Elliott Smith were alive, I probably wouldn’t have been the most fun person for him to talk to,” she explained to The New Yorker. And the song’s magic trick is that now Bridgers has become, for her many Biggest Fans, that same object of intense, uneasy fascination: “What if I told you I feel like I know you,” the chorus goes, “but we never met?” This is the risk you run, as a burgeoning superstar, when you specialize in nigh-unbearable intimacy. So there are advantages, here in 2020, to Bridgers having limited in-person access to the public, and the public having limited in-person access to her.

Out in the park we watch the sunset
Talking on a rusty swing set
After a while you went quiet
And I got mean

But “I Know the End” is where the album—and all music in 2020—begins and ends for me. The song itself begins gently, carefully, with a little eerie submerged distortion but otherwise a return to the nigh-unbearable intimacy of just her guitar and her fragile, unbreakable voice. It will always come down to the lyrics with her, how deeply they wound in direct opposition to how gently she delivers them. In lieu of that arena tour, like every major and minor 2020 pop star, Bridgers spent this year giving ersatz-intimate livestreamed performances on various platforms for various publications. And if you’re among her Biggest Fans, I totally get it if you prefer her solo version of “I Know the End,” as delivered on Pitchfork’s Instagram account, the focus entirely on, yes, her voice and her guitar, the song’s sonic canvas never widening and intensifying and exploding in a way that swallows her up.

But I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado
I’m gonna chase it
I know, I know, I know
I gotta go now
I know, I know, I know

As for the rest of us, we begged to explode.

For me, it will always come down to whether a song makes me walk a little faster when I’m on one of my late-night mental-health jaunts: That is the mark of true greatness. Which explains why the slow mutation of “I Know the End”—the pace quickening, the bass and drums and strings and horns and raging electric guitars and background screamers joining the fray—inevitably sends me into a dead sprint.

Driving out into the sun
Let the ultraviolet cover me up
Went looking for a creation myth
Ended up with a pair of cracked lips

The magic trick being that her lyrics, as all of these gathering elements intensify and threaten to swallow her, are IMHO the best she’s ever written.

Windows down, scream along
To some America First rap-country song
A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall
Slot machines, fear of God

The climax of this song is often compared, lovingly, to arena-emo titans My Chemical Romance—the fearless theatrical bombast, the conflation of absolute personal triumph with total societal destruction—and it feels relevant to say that if I were making a list of my top 10 concerts I didn’t actually get to attend in 2020, MCR’s gala arena reunion tour is no. 1 with all the bullets.

Windows down, heater on
Big bolts of lightning hanging low
Over the coast, everyone’s convinced
It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship

The battleship-sized shudder that nearly drowns out the words bolts of lightning are your first indication that the shit’s about to go down. And it’s a good thing, too, because your 2020 album doesn’t really exist unless there’s at least one moment when the shit goes down.

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

“I Know the End” got a lockdown-deluxe music video, of course. I was rooting for more physical destruction, but I let it slide. “OMG, that’s the TikTok yelling grandma she’s making out with!” observed one of my esteemed coworkers. Which was (a) accurate and (b) incredibly confusing.

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

As a culture writer—a deeply inessential worker, in the taxonomy of 2020, but we all do what we can—I’ve spent the year asking if various albums and songs effectively speak to the Year of Covid, or for that matter the Year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or the Year of the Election That Never Ended. Does Pearl Jam speak to these times? Does Dua Lipa speak to these times? Does Lady Gaga speak to these times? Do posthumous records from Pop Smoke and Juice Wrld speak to these times? Does the Trolls World Tour soundtrack speak to these times? Oh, shut up.

The end is here

This despite the fact that a few notable exceptions aside—hello, Taylor—none of those musicians could’ve possibly imagined the world that would greet these albums: the despair, the fury, the isolation, the cautious and still-ongoing rebirth.

The end is here

(They might’ve seen the Election That Never Ended coming, though.)

The end is here

But “I Know the End,” more than any other song I clung to this year, seemed to know what was coming long before it came, and still knows where we’re going even though we’re far from getting there. All that screaming—and I’m not much for screaming, ordinarily—might portend hellfire and apocalypse, or it might just be, y’know, catharsis. Only one way to know for sure. Only one song to put on repeat until we find out for sure.

The end is here

And now when I’m doing these late-night speed-walks around my neighborhood, I get to look at everyone’s quite lovely Christmas lights, and mostly I manage not to think about the implications of this, in terms of the passing of time.

The end is

And sure maybe sometimes I feel like screaming, but I don’t, in part because “I Know the End” makes me walk way too fast to catch enough of my breath, but mostly because Phoebe Bridgers, in her infinite vicious benevolence, screams enough for us all.