boygenius the record

Album Review: boygenius – The Record

[Interscope; 2023]

There’s always been some kind of special aura around boygenius. The trio of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus was forged off a throwaway “pipe dream” that Baker had, which then turned into a booking on the same tour and the decision to record a song together. One song became six, became the boygenius EP, became the calling card for these three young talents on the modern indie music scene. At the time of the EP’s release in 2018, calling boygenius a “supergroup” might have been a little generous as they were still fairly fresh faces. However, the boost it gave each of their careers inversely set them on their way to a supergroup after the fact. Each of them has since released a solo record that’s enjoyed boosted attention thanks to their association with each other. Upon rejoining together in the studio to make The Record, with a few more years of writing, recording, touring, promoting and other experience behind them, they are truly worthy of that title.

But boygenius don’t seem like just a supergroup; they seem like a band that was preternaturally meant to be together. The Record opens with “Without You Without Them”, an acapella three-part harmony that has their voices coming together in perfectly streamlined, silverline beauty; Dacus’ rich tones at the centre and the other two’s more diaphanous tones glinting off the edges, a Megazord-like aural combination. That they sing about connection, sharing everything “until your history’s no mystery to me”, just underlines the mind-melding beauty of hearing them work together.

The next three songs, which were also released as the first three singles, are each helmed by a different writer, and were written in isolation from the others – but go further to prove that the three have some kind of psychic understanding. Baker’s “$20” rucks and bucks with clanging guitars (a new sound for the group) as she sings of petrol-fueled escape and playing with fire. This then segues into Bridgers’ gently stirring apology “Emily I’m Sorry” where we’re once again in a car, someone in the back seat “wakin’ up inside a dream full of screeching tires and fire”. This midnight-hued mea culpa reaches out vocal tendrils of regret into the past, for someone formerly close. Things shift again as we move into Dacus’ “True Blue”, which continues the theme of reaching out to someone special from the past, but the sound is flipped inside out to become glorious sunshine and warmth. Her open-hearted melody and empathetic vocal tone make the central message of “it feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you the way I hide from myself” into a blanket of truth that you want to snuggle up inside.

Although the rest of the songs are more collaborative, these three do set vague templates for what’s to come from each of the songwriters. Baker again leads on “Satanist”, the album’s other big rocker, where she makes the offer of “will you be an anarchist with me / sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie” sound like the absolute right life choice. The purring, driving “Anti-Curse” again sends her back into an anarchic past – “Was anyone ever so young? / Breakin’ curfew with illegal fireworks” – which soon builds up into another towering rocker. 

Bridgers returns to the deep and reflective well that made Punisher such a worldwide smash on “Revolution 0”, a spindly acoustic number that finds her lamenting a loved one’s mental illness and sweetly singing threats into the lonesome night; “I just wanna know who broke your nose / Figure out where they live / So I can kick their teeth in.” The album closer, “Letter To An Old Poet”, again finds her in a contemplative late-night mood, picking over memories filled with violence, but underscored by atmospheric piano and with the three voices coming together perfectly again for the cracked crystal refrain – “You make me feel like an equal / But I’m better than you / And you should know that by now” – it feels like a new wrinkle to her beloved style. 

For her part, Dacus is her usual diaristic self on the short but buoyant “Leonard Cohen”, which effortlessly and vividly reaffirms the love between the three women as she details a boygenius roadtrip that went awry but ended up being a fundamental bonding experience. On “We’re In Love”, a showcase for her sweet and classic voice, she details an even closer relationship – but emphasises the fragility of nascent adoration. “Will you still love me if it turns out I’m insane? / I know what you’ll say, but it helps to hear you say it anyway,” she coos, filled with the kind of gentle neediness that anyone who’s been in a devoted relationship will recognise. 

All of the above-mentioned tracks are lovingly adorned and augmented with touches from the other members – and made to sound impeccable by the crack team behind the desks including producer Catherine Marks, and performers Sarah Tudzin (illuminati hotties) and Melina Duterte (Jay Som). However, the best two tracks on The Record happen to be the ones where it’s not obvious whose seed kicked it off; the ones that feel like they were truly created in unison.

“Cool About It” is the first of these, and feels like another new style for the trio as they playfully rhyme that titular phrase and interweave verses over a dandy banjo bop in a manner that recalls classic Simon & Garfunkel. The central “Not Strong Enough” is the album standout and the pinnacle of their collaboration so far. Starting with Bridgers disoriented and seeing black holes, via Baker being “scraped up off the pavement”, and finishing with Dacus’ powerful, rousing repetition of “Always an angel / Never a god”, it covers a lot of ground. Despite the defeated tones of the words, “Not Strong Enough” is undeniably uplifting, the power of the trio’s union unspoken in the words, but beaming bright in the way it musically powers through the gloom and out into the sunshine, cruising for pastures new.

Now that boygenius have an album and will be touring behind it all year, they genuinely feel like a supergroup, but that word holds a lot of baggage and expectation. Although boygenius have met and exceeded all hopes with The Record, it doesn’t sound the slightest bit laboured. They may have worked 10 hour days for a month to record and perfect the album, but the finished product smacks much more of fun and harmony than stress and effort. That goes to the heart of boygenius – they’re not a supergroup, they’re just three very close friends helping each other have the times of their lives. And that deserves to be celebrated all the more.