There’s always something amusing about how your relationship with a record can evolve with the passing of time. I remember not liking Dido’s 2003 smash “White Flag” very much upon its debut; nearly two decades later, now I feel it when she breathlessly whimpers, “I will go down with this ship / But I won’t put my hands up and surrender…”
These days, though, I’m wont to replace that bit with “I will go down with this shit / And I will put my hands up and surrender…” Many a half-baked situationship, nearly-there romance, and fruitless hook-up later, I felt like I might as well climb through the window, leave it wide open, and let the dystopian morning light pour in.
One such morning, I found myself in the back of a Grab car — the Southeast Asian version of Uber — and feeling like, well, going down with all the shit, putting my hands up and surrendering. But it was a different song playing in my head: Phoebe Bridgers’ “Garden Song.”
Hours prior, I was still sharing a blanket with a friend of a friend. He had offered to “crash the guest room if you so wish” the night before. It had me dumbfounded … and mildly aroused.
It was only our second encounter. The first was a mixed bag: I thought he was cute, I made him check his birth chart, discovered he’s a fellow Scorpio Rising then learned that he thought Seaspiracy was “a load of bullshit” in its premise, so he wasn’t even interested in checking it out. I promptly made a mental note to keep my distance from him.
That night, though, I caught myself smirking at his invitation and what it might have meant. “Is this because I was the only one pointing at him when we were playing ‘Point at the Person You Think Is the Cutest in This Room’ earlier?” I pondered.
I’d been to way too many gatherings and sleepovers where people (read: other gay guys) would start hooking up. By this point, I was already a frequent guest at my friend’s house, an elder statesqueer in the scene. I wanted a seat at that table. Or a side on that guest room’s bed, more like.
But I was barely asleep the whole night. There I was, constantly checking his side of the bed, making sure we stayed in touch, looking for a sign that he might be interested in swinging by my garden. Frankly speaking, I wasn’t even that horny, just curious. Somewhere between bouts of light sleep, it struck me: So this is the difference when you’re actually anticipating something.
It’s a heart-palpitating change of pace from the clean-cut transactionality of the dating app scheme. When you’re unsure whether or not there will be a hook up at all — and after getting to know the other person platonically to boot — it’s the type of thrill that doesn’t quite let up. Your senses are on overdrive, you’re on the edge of your own twisted desire, you’re high on the ambiguity, the questioning of it all.
Sometime past 6 AM, all that anticipation had evaporated and I could no longer force myself to sleep. Streaks of sunlight made their way through the curtains. Then it dawned on me: Right. He has a boyfriend. They FaceTimed last night. Cue the facepalm emoji. Just pack up your stuff and leave now.
So there I was, staring out of the window, feeling the dejection and the fatigue creep up on me again, haunted by that line from “Garden Song”:
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…
What exactly is the dream?
“When I find you / You touch my leg / And I insist / But I wake up before we do it.”
There’s a sense of haziness and slipperiness to “Garden Song” that’s as disorienting as it is comforting. In fact, the same can be said about the entirety of Punisher. The album’s statement of purpose, more or less, is captured in “Chinese Satellite” with the biting line, “I want to believe / Instead I look at the sky / And I feel nothing.” Even when the tempo picks up on cuts like “Kyoto” or “I See You,” an unshakeable tremulousness abides.
“For the most part, millennials are the first generation to not really be living for the next generation. People have stopped romanticizing the future. I just feel like I could never imagine a time beyond now. I used to know what my life would look like in eight months, now I certainly don’t.”– Phoebe Bridgers, Uproxx.com
At the onset of the pandemic, I was unexpectedly relieved to be forced out of the social hamster wheel and tend to my own garden, as it were, bidding good riddance to longtime friends who took issue with my becoming increasingly vocal about animal rights and environmental issues on social media.
Except that, over a year on, I need people again. I crave new like-minded companions. To be in love again, with a person, a thing, or life in general. Anything. Routine and seclusion have become mind-numbingly rote. Living 24/7 with a dysfunctional family is messing with my sanity. At the same time, I’m the furthest I’ve ever been from making any tangible effort to seek anything — or anyone — out.
It’s overwhelming to witness the sheer severity of our collective existence, every day, everywhere, all the time, caused by our fellow mortals. To realize that in one way or another, I might have been complicit too. I knew Saturn return would be no picnic, I just didn’t expect to live it out in the midst of a global pandemic.
In all fairness, I don’t think most of us did either. Perhaps except the astrologers.
I wasn’t crazy about Punisher at first. My initial listens were constantly ridden with thoughts like, “This is not as good as [Bridgers’ 2017 debut] Stranger in the Alps.” But something about it — the lush, expansive soundscape, the tuneful, emotive songwriting, and most notably Bridgers’ part angelic, part world-weary voice — never failed to draw me in. I had it on repeat, but it didn’t end up being my number one album of 2020 (Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters).
On the car ride, though, I began to realize how Punisher has actually soundtracked many a solitary, rueful moment in my life, even over a year after its release. Unwittingly, these songs have seeped into my subconscious and sprouted their roots all over my mental terrains. The garden, it seems, is now in full bloom.
As the car pulled up to my rented house, all the more dejected, I groggily glanced at a nearby landfill where a neighborhood cat was standing over piles of plastic trash bags, flies all over him.
In my head, the final three minutes of “I Know The End” started playing.