v listens Zine #1: December 2020

(tw: discussion of domestic abuse)

Hello! My name is Vincent and I love writing about music.

A couple of years ago, I went through a bad breakup. I had been in an abusive relationship and had suffered severely at the hands of the complex intertwinement of love and abuse. My life and my sense of self had been picked apart, piece by piece, until I was completely dependent on my partner. Breaking up with them is the hardest thing I have ever done.

In the wake of this breakup, I was faced with the task of rebuilding not just my life but also myself. I turned to writing about songs, starting my Instagram page @v_listens. Whilst I have taken many other steps on the road to reaching the person I am today (one I’m quite happy with by the way!), this was perhaps the most empowering. Music played a huge role in my partner’s life, and thus had a positive and negative impact on mine. The positive — I credit them with instilling in me the love for music I have today; the negative — this was the first of many instances of them assuming power and control in the relationship.

The reason I wanted to preface the rest of this article with that information is that I see it as a good introduction to my motive and my style. With every word I write about each new song I fall in love with, I feel a step further away from my ex-partner’s grip and a step closer to finding power of my own. By being vulnerable with my writing, by putting my experiences out into the world, I assume less of their burden.

In December, I started a new project— a zine in which I write about my favourite new music discovered in a given month. I also launched my own website to have somewhere to display it (vlisten.com). Below is the first snippet of the zine, my thoughts on Phoebe Bridgers’ album Punisher. If you enjoy it, then head over to my website where you can find the full version of the zine. Also, feel free to follow my Instagram page @v_listens if it seems like something up your street. Happy listening!

Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers

Look, I know I’m late to the Phoebe Bridgers party. I wasn’t putting it off consciously — I’d just never got round to listening. It’s silly really given how much I like a lot of the other talent working for the Dead Oceans label (Fenne Lily, Mitski, Kevin Morby, etc.), and how many solo female artists of this kind of genre I like.

Punisher is an understated, atmospheric album which slowly submerges the listener in Bridgers’ dreamlike world of dissociation, an experience all too familiar to the artist in both good and bad times. I’ve never suffered from any major mental health conditions, but I empathise with this lack of reality, of not feeling what you should, when you should, of moments passing you by without feeling grounded in them. I’m good at maintaining a base level of happiness but when anything overly good or bad happens I often dissociate and don’t really feel anything in the moment, only to retroactively be hit by a surge of whichever emotion I missed out on.

Strings are at the core of this album, opening every song and serving as the glue for all the other components to bind themselves together. I love the variety they offer — the repetitive guitar which drives tracks like Garden Song and Chinese Satellite, the groovy bass lines of Kyoto (my personal favourite on the album), the soft strings on Moon Song that reverberate and take up space, the distorted guitar on I Know The End as the emotional tension of the album begins to boil over, the plucking on Halloween which just sounds like pumpkins to me (sorry), or any number of the fantastic violin features (the unusual and pleasing combo with a classic country sound on Graceland Too particularly struck me).

As the sonic embodiment of dissociation, Punisher is bursting with background noises which build this world: keyboard notes which sound like cherry blossoms, general haunting and dream-like filters and effects buzzing around, and the drums, which always feel slightly pushed out of the spotlight, apart from on a few of the more urgent tracks (Kyoto, ICU, I Know The End). All of this build-up of background noise truly sees its payoff in the final song — I Know The End offers a climactic release, as the veneer Bridgers has built up is smashed apart by a wall of sound and her own powerful screaming, a beautiful contrast to the general softness that comes before.

It is the silent screams which draw the album to a close that I found the most haunting — they are scary and disorientating and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Maybe it’s the release of sitting through so many emotionally heavy songs, or maybe it’s the realisation that this is Bridgers’ reality… Whilst we can empathise with the vocalisation of the feelings that haunt her, none of it can be conveyed quite as accurately as this raw emotional expression. Whichever it is, it makes for a great close to the album. I wanted to end on this great quote from Bridgers when discussing Kyoto:

“I want to normalize personhood. Songs are like therapy to me: I’m just like a normal person, going to therapy.”

I feel the same way, whether it’s listening to music or writing about it. I’d love to reach a point in my life where I could maybe write some music too. Big thumbs up from me, I’ll be listening to her first album and the rest of her discography as a priority! :)