Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers - Copycat Killer EP
During the middle of June, and into the beginning of July, I spent a number of Friday nights drinking alone1, most often lying on the floor in my living room, listening to Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher.
I was doing this both as a means to immerse myself in the record to accurately write a verbose review of it2, but also to immerse myself in the world that Bridgers created with the record, and accept all of the difficult feelings and unflattering reflections of myself that it was bringing up.
Bridgers did not have to go as hard as she did on Punisher, but she did it to us anyway. An album that can be both dissected into specific moments, the intent, I’ve realized the more I’ve listened to it as the year comes to an end, is for it to work as an emotionally devastating whole that begins tenderly, and comfortingly, but ends in a terrifying cacophonic shriek, while covering literally every emotion—the extreme highs and lows—in between.
Bridgers did not have to go as hard as she did on Punisher, and she did not have to return3, already, so quickly, with an EP that serves as a companion piece to the record. At year’s end, arriving as could what be viewed as a very deserved victory lap4, the Copycat Killer EP pulls four songs from Punisher’s 11, and dramatically reimagines them through the string arrangements of Rob Moose, a go-to composter, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist who has an impressive resume of work with diverse acts like John Legend, Taylor Swift, Perfume Genius, and Bon Iver.
Already responsible for the string arrangements on Punisher, as well as contributions to Bridgers’ debut, Stranger in The Alps, Moose deconstructs then rebuilds these four selections—at times the music is almost unfamiliar until the familiarity comes tumbling in, and in listening to them in this setting, it allows them them to be experienced under different, swirling, and invigorating—though still very vivid—circumstances.
I was both disappointed and relieved when I saw that, of the songs selected to be rearranged for the Copycat Killer EP, “Moon Song” was not among them—disappointed, because it is, for me, the most important song from Punisher, and I am certain that Moose’s orchestration would have resulted in something absolutely stirring and emotionally wrecking; relieved, because I just don’t think my little heart could take hearing another version of “Moon Song” when, as it is, I can barely keep it together when I listen—it is just that personally devastating for me.
I am unsure of the process used to select which of Punisher’s 11 tracks (10 really, since it begins with an instrumental introductory track) would be featured on Copycat Killer, but of the four Moose and Bridgers have chosen to rebuild and re-record, I hesitate slightly to say that it provides additional ‘insight’ into the songs featured on the EP’s first side (“Kyoto” and “Savior Complex”), but it does offer the opportunity to possibly appreciate them from an alternate perspective, and allows the listener a little bit more understanding toward the song’s meaning—what lyrical elements might be more prominent or better defined within this new context, or what might be a little more dramatically emphasized this time around.
Punisher’s second single, “Kyoto,” is the kind of song I resigned myself to accept as working within the context of the album from beginning to end, but it would be near the bottom of the list if I rearranged the album’s tracks in terms of favorite, to least favorite.
Why is that—it isn’t a bad song, even, really, but for me it has myriad things working against it, or keeping it at a distance, including the whimsical, tinny sounding intro that gives way to the proper ‘opening’ of the song; and even when the song does soar once it hits what serves as its chorus sections, and is infectiously written in such a way that the melody lodges itself in your head, there’s something about the big ‘pop’ bombast it exudes that walks a line between being both kind of ‘out of place’ tonally with the rest of the record, but also, somehow, not out of place at all.
If that makes any sense at all.
It is a big, shimmery song that in the end, just didn’t land all the way with me.
A song about Bridgers’ struggle with imposter syndrome while on tour in Japan, as well as the implications it is an ambiguous reflection on her strained relationship with her father, it’s within this new arrangement of “Kyoto” that those elements are no longer at risk of getting lost in the enormity of the song’s original instrumentation, and Bridgers’ lyrics, often biting or full of an underlying sense of macabre humor, resonate just a little deeper than they did the first time.
The first song featured on Copycat Killer, the string arrangement for “Kyoto” begins slowly and somewhat ominously, with Bridgers’ unassuming vocals firmly planted in the center of the spiraling sensation being concocted, and in working without the chugging, indie pop energy of the original, it is more or less unrelenting in the feeling of tension, especially as Bridgers reaches the somewhat harrowing lyric at the beginning of the first chorus: “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t beat me to it.”
Moose’s string work opens up a little more as the song begins to progress, taking a clearer shape near the end of the first chorus and into the second verse, where it begins contrasting itself between a little saccharine in the grand, cinematic sweeps it makes, then careening into mildly chaotic dramatic flourish. And Bridgers juxtaposes the venom of the first chorus with the surprising bitterness of the second: “I don’t forgive you—so please don’t hold me to it.”
Sequenced immediately after the tumultuous “Moon Song” on Punisher, Bridgers was quoted as saying “Savior Complex” serves as its thematic sequel of sorts—getting what you want, as she put sit, but realizing you are then in a relationship with someone who hates themselves.
While the original version of “Savior Complex” was built around swooning atmospherics and plaintively strummed acoustic guitars, giving it a very intentional dream-like, gauzy feeling, the Copycat Killer version mostly does away with the gossamer textures of the album version, and, much like the sharp contrasting of “Kyoto,” Moose works to juxtapose the mixed emotions of the lyrics with his arrangement, at times working in tension and minor dissonance, then resolving it with moments that envelop in their lushness and beauty.
What it must be like navigating somebody else’s depression, or being in a relationship with someone suffering from a debilitating mental illness is something that I, as the depressed person, often lose sight—it makes you so insular, in a sense, that you forget what you, in your depressive state, might be doing to those around you.
“Savior Complex,” lyrically, isn’t exactly mean spirited, but it is a song about how frustrating it is being on the other end of that depression, or mental illness, and having the good intention of wanting to help, or be supportive, and how the line between offering help and wanting to ‘save’ someone can become blurry, because more often than not, the depressed person either does not want to be ‘saved,’ and can be apprehensive about accepting the help they are being offered. And there is a sweetness, or at the very least, a tenderness or thoughtfulness in the way Bridgers delivers her lyrics here that is not missing from the original, but is much more defined this time around as she sings with a gentleness, or calming reassurance to her voice: “All the skeletons you hide—show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”
I look at the sky and I feel nothing
In the cases of “Savior Complex” and “Kyoto,” the meaning of songs is a little more defined or amplified on Copycat Killer, but as the EP’s second side opens, with “Chinese Satellite,” the meaning simply resonates much harder than it did the first time around—it, surprisingly, did not leave me feeling seen or attacked, as music often as me feeling, but after listening to this iteration of the song, in its wake, all I could say in response was, “I get it now.”
“Chinese Satellite” closes out the first side of Punisher, and while the album as a whole employs myriad production techniques and effects, this is one of the instances where the attention to detail and meticulous production is most apparent—layers of swirling vocal tracks that create eerie chemtrails around Bridgers’ voice, for starters, as well as the sharp compression on Marshall Vore’s frenetic drumming; here, all those trappings and additional densities are removed, and the sheer emotional exhaustion and desperation that is just on the tip of the lyrics is moved up to the forefront.
“I’ve been running around in circles pretending to be myself,” Bridgers begins, while descending and plucked strings create a surprisingly strong rhythm giving the song clear direction. At its core, “Chinese Satellite” is about faith, or belief, in something ‘bigger’ or spiritual, and Bridgers’ lack thereof, despite her best efforts. The album version of the song works to create a kind of entropic feeling with just how gigantic the music becomes; it could be looked at as another ‘big’ indie pop moment, but it sticks the landing just a little better because it simply isn’t so bright sounding.
On the Copycat Killer arrangement, as they did the first time, yes, the strings still sound gorgeous underscoring Bridgers as she delivers the key lyrics—“I want to believe,” she implores. “Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing”; but here, there is a kind of frustrated hopelessness that echoes throughout the song, causing it to hit just a little bit harder, and cut slightly deeper than it did the first time around.
And, with that frustrated hopelessness, and that emotional exhaustion and desperation, also comes a loneliness and haunted longing that also did not resonate nearly as deeply as it is in this context: “You know I hate to be alone,” Bridgers sings in the song’s first chorus, and then in the second—“Sometimes when I can’t sleep, it’s just a matter of time before I’m hearing things. Swore I could feel you through the walls, but that’s impossible.”
I swear I’m not angry—that’s just my face
During my early listens of Punisher, it was the album’s titular track that was among the first to knock the wind out of me and instill in me just how serious Bridgers was capable of being. In its original form, “Punisher” balances gorgeous, deep piano accompaniment against quiet layers of atmospheric whooshing, and an icy, robotic, hollow effect put on her vocals during the song’s verses—creating a sharp, ever changing contrast between a comforting warmth and an off-putting chill.
Pulling its title from “Punisher,” the Copycat Killer EP saves its finest, most haunting and stunning moment for last.
Inherently a fan letter to Elliott Smith5, “Punisher” also unpacks what it’s like growing up in Los Angeles, along with Bridgers’ own struggle with remaining gracious and feeling authentic enough on her own. “What if I told you I feel like I know you but we never met?,” she sings in the refrain, while Moose’s string arrangement whirls around her fragile voice. “It’s for the best,” she admits—the titular ‘punisher’ is a name given to the awkward, eager fan that lingers a little too long at the merchandise table after shows, and doesn’t know how to end best conclude conversations with someone they admire.
The realization in the song is that Bridgers is not as patient as she could be in interactions like this (“I swear I’m not angry—that’s just my face” is one of the song’s most relatable lines); she also admits that if she were in a position to have ever met Elliott Smith, she would, more than likely, have become ‘the punisher.’
Moose’s string arrangement, here the most minimal and unobtrusive it has been throughout the EP, smartly serves as a means of musical punctuation with the main focus being on Bridgers’ voice and the song’s lyrics. It opens with her unaccompanied, quietly singing the song’s eerie, Smith-esque opening line with nothing but a slight bed of reverb underneath: “When the speed kicks in, I go to the store for nothing.” The strings glacially creep in as the first verse continues before building up to something undeniably cinematic in execution as the refrain hits—turning into a near waltz in its rhythm prior to the sudden, fitting, reflective conclusion to the song, with Bridgers conceding how difficult it would be if she were to meet her heroes: “I can open my mouth and forget out how talk; ‘cause even if I could I wouldn’t know where to start—wouldn’t know where to stop.”
It is astounding to think of where Phoebe Bridgers was roughly three years ago—her rise just beginning in the wake of her debut, Stranger in The Alps. Each new project she’s taken on since then has opened more doors for her, with Punisher’s success by the end of 2020 having provided the most opportunities thus far. It should be obvious that Copycat Killer isn’t entirely ‘fan service,’ but it is a companion release dedicated to a specific group of people, providing a surprising, haunting, beautiful epilogue of sorts to a collection of songs that many of us are still trying to emotionally make our way through, six months after the fact.
1- In case anyone was curious, since it was the summer, my drink of choice was a gin and tonic; now that it is winter, I am slowly making my way into other cocktails while I drink alone and write.
2- These reviews don’t write themselves despite what people might think, and usually, with what I would deem to be an ‘important’ album, I like to take a lot of time with it in order form something a little bit more thoughtful than what is presumably not so much a ‘knee jerk’ review that you would find on a regular degular music website but I the the feeling a lot of music writing is ‘deadline focused’ and so it’s just kind of an initial response to something and a lot less personal of a reflection/
3- Around the same time Copycat Killer was announced, Bridgers also released her annual charity holiday single, as well as a wildly successful cover of the Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris.”
4- After I had started writing this but before it was finished, Bridgers was nominated for a bunch of GRAMMY awards, which apparently still mean something to people.
5- Bridgers never comes out and states, in the song, that it’s about Smith, which is a neat songwriting trick, but there are countless allusions to both him and his songwriting in “Punisher.” Also, I guess I am glad that she is such a fan of Smith and is self-aware enough to refer to herself as a ‘copycat killer’ of his because made a small comparison between the two of them in my review of Stranger in The Alps and now, three years later, I don’t feel as bad about doing that.