You could call Phoebe Bridgers’s new album Punisher sparse, hushed, or contained, but then you’d be missing out on one of the beautiful things about it: “I Know the End,” the closer that starts out subdued before building into an explosion. Bridgers fittingly saves the standout moment of the album, a song that confidently stares down the end of the world, for a coup de grâce.
“I Know the End” feels split down the middle. The first part brings more of the delicately orchestrated folk that Bridgers built over the album, as she dwells on home and homesickness. Then the electric guitar picks up and Bridgers starts to describe a drive. The music moves with her storytelling — you can hear something coming into focus like you’re approaching it. The sights of Americana along the way feel ominous: “A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall / Slot machines, fear of God.” It’s partially inspired by a real trip Bridgers made through California, where she saw a SpaceX launch on her way to Outside Lands. “I live in dystopia,” she told Pitchfork, talking about scenes in her music. “So the times where I do step out of myself and have some sort of sublime experience, it makes it into my music because I can’t stop thinking about it.” But on “I Know the End,” dystopia feels inescapable, everywhere you look. “The billboard said, ‘The end is near,’” she sings.
Bridgers calls “I Know the End” “a big metal song,” but it’s really the Phoebe Bridgers universe’s equivalent to metal. It’s one of the simply biggest songs she’s made over the course of two solo albums, a boygenius EP and a Better Oblivion Community Center record, in part because everyone is there. A few voices — it sounds like Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and maybe others — join her on the last few lines of the verse, before the song hits its breaking point and everyone screams, “The end is here!” Not just Baker, Dacus, and Conor Oberst, but old friends and collaborators like Tomberlin, Christian Lee Hutson, and Blake Mills, and others. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner rips on guitar, Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott arranges rousing horns, and Warpaint’s Jennifer Lee Lindberg holds it all down on bass. It’s one of the most beautiful minutes or so of music of the year, not to mention a stunning addition to the canon of music about the end of the world. The song eventually devolves into screaming, and wouldn’t you want to as well? Don’t you want to right now?
As we’re living in one of the most limited worlds we’ve ever known, Bridgers provides expansive, necessary catharsis on “I Know the End.” She’d gotten close to capturing that feeling at the end of her Stranger in the Alps track “Scott Street,” a symphony of ooohs, guitar chords, bicycle bells, and toy train horns. But that was restrained — “I Know the End” is maximalist chaos. “I’m not afraid to disappear,” Bridgers sings on the third verse. Getting lost in the noise of her own song led to one of her greatest yet.