boygenius – the record – Album Review

It’s strange to be discussing the debut album from boygenius. Anything that predates the Pandemic Time Flux™ is surely well established and a lifetime ago.

When songwriters Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers first collaborated in 2018, it was a formative time in their respective careers: none being further along than their sophomore album. The eponymous EP was a huge success in indie-spheres, and brought much-deserved ears to their talents in and away from the group. They have not coasted since. In retrospect, this may have been what kickstarted Bridgers’ unspoken ambition to seriously overwork her agent. With five critically acclaimed albums between them in as many years, they’ve been hard at work ensuring that they’d return together a bonafide supergroup.

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Opener ‘Without You Without Them’ is entirely acapella and, might I add, pans beautifully on a headphone listen. The barbershop harmony of the three voices is golden, and the lyrics’ simplicity sign on completely to invoke that feeling. They reflect on being here at all, on the importance of togetherness, and then it’s gone… I’d say a touch too soon.

The next three tracks in the listing, the singles of the record, establish what can now be called boygenius tradition: each member brings along a track and then they’re adapted accordingly to fit the dynamic of the group. First up is ‘$20’, and when that indie bass groove starts buzzing, it’s unmistakably Baker’s contribution. She recalls her tendency to gravitate towards self-destructive behaviour: “Pushing the flowers that come up / Into the front of a shotgun / so many hills to die on”. The back-end sees their trademark harmonic crescendo lay-up some truly discordant wailing, and thematically, we’re all tied up amongst the chaos.

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‘Emily I’m Sorry’ is the kind of song Phoebe Bridgers has made her name off: an aching lamentation of times gone by, written at the pinpoint intersection of relatability and total specificity. She confesses: “I can feel myself becoming / someone only you could want”, and it’s difficult to tell if her apology is genuine, or mere self-preservation.

On ‘True Blue’ Lucy Dacus wastes no time digging back into the vibe of her last full-length, Home Video. She talks exploring life away from home, finding herself, and the need for constants in the carnage. “It feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself.” This is as comfortable, maybe even predictable as the words paint her, and it’s not a bad thing.

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Paul Simon is cited in the liner notes as inspiration for ‘Cool About It’, and the finger-plucked guitar/banjo ensemble and ever-rolling vocal melody make it obvious why. Everyone gets a verse here, venting on communication failures and botched meetings, presumably with lovers past.

The distant, chorus-laden guitar bends of ‘Not Strong Enough’ remind me of The Cure, way before Baker name-drops ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. The line “Half a mind that keeps the other second guessing” is kind of the crux of the track in either of its assumed meanings, there’s a disconnect somewhere, we just don’t know if it’s in or out. The chorus soars with a country-rock dialect we haven’t touched on this time around, and it’s refreshing.

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I truly think I could’ve come up with ‘Revolution 0’ as a title, if asked to emulate the kind of wry jabbing of a male-dominated industry boygenius are famous for, down to their very name. It is, unfortunately, a bit too business-as-usual on the ears as well. “You wanted a song, so it’s gonna be a short one / Wish I wasn’t so tired, but I’m tired” is a ways away yet from groan-inducing, but should keep watching the road.

‘Leonard Cohen’ is pictured “an old man having an existential crisis / At a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry”, but he’s to be listened to in this instance. The members of the band struggle to truly let each other in, and some wisdom from LC’s ‘Anthem’ is to be begrudgingly beholden.

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The sun-kissed slacker-rock riff of ‘Satanist’ accompanies some interesting ideas on tackling ones identity. “Solomon had a point when he wrote Ecclesiastes / If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy / If the void becomes a bore, we’ll treat ourselves to some self-belief.” It’s actually a fun one despite the weighty subject matter, and much needed after the last two tracks just sort of washed over me.

Speaking of, ‘We’re in Love’ is that track on the record, the one you were grossly unprepared for. Dacus orchestrates another emotional mugging in her catalogue of many, laying her innermost on the table, refusing to break flow for a hook or refrain. “I’ll be the boy with the pink carnation, pinned to my lapel / Who looks like hell and asks for help / and if you do, I’ll know it’s you.”

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The vocal melody of the EP’s ‘Salt in the Wound’ is repurposed for ‘Anti-Curse’, a song where Julien is forced to confront her mortality whilst drowning. In moments that might be her last, she finds peace, and then more than that: a “die fighting” need to continue. “You don’t have to make it bad / just ’cause you know how” is possibly another reference to The Beatles, more specifically ‘Hey Jude’, which was famously conceived as ‘Hey Jules’, and – oh. Okay, that’s very clever.

A huge theme of the record is finding the emotional vulnerability required to truly know and be known. On closer ‘Letter to an Old Poet’, Phoebe’s new-found ability to let the light in (see ‘Leonard Cohen’) and create meaningful relationships, naturally reopens the ancient wounds of those gone by, exacerbated by sheer contrast. Once again they interpolate themselves, but how could they not? It’s 2018’s ‘Me and My Dog’ that gets the lick of paint and the new M.O: one shared, as the journey, by all three voices.

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For as much as I enjoy the lore-building of boygenius, the commitment not only to acknowledging their history, but attempting to build on it, I think the best parts of the record are when they feel like they’re heading for sonic ground they wouldn’t or couldn’t cover as well alone. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is doing their thing very well: Dacus lifts heavy on the lyrics, Bridgers gets you misty-eyed… but it’s Baker zipping off in new directions that really keeps this thing together for me.

I definitely enjoyed this selection of tracks for the most part, but I can’t help but feel as if a few cuts would sit a little too perfectly on previous solo efforts. Boo hoo, right? Here’s a batch of songs that would pair well with their other fantastic work on fantastic records. Call me spoiled, but I just want them to tap into the stuff they can only do together a little more.

the record is out now.

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