Review: boygenius’s ‘the record’ is more than strong enough
boygenius’s debut album and first release since a 2018 EP is an ode to the romance of powerful friendship.
Released on March 31, boygenius’s debut album “the record” presents a genre-bending exploration of togetherness and uncertainty, as well as an embodied story of what it means to be a band. The so-called “supergroup” is composed of three individually-beloved female artists — Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. When Baker, Bridgers and Dacus were all serendipitously booked on the same tour in 2018, they decided to record one song as a group. The three knew each other previously from the music circuit, but “boygenius” was born when, after four days in the studio, the trio left with a full-length EP which would go on to achieve cult classic status.
The mythology around making music has always lionized the individual male genius, and boygenius chose their name with this in mind. “The record” alternately embraces and pokes fun at this narrative with references to Nirvana, The Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among other members of the pantheon. “the record” relishes in the slippage between the prototypical male genius of the industry and the queer-identifying, all-female supergroup “boygenius” — that’s part of what makes it great.
In the song “Leonard Cohen,” Dacus quotes “Anthem” by Cohen, singing “there’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Dacus hastens to clarify that she is “not an old man having an existential crisis at a Buddhist monastery / writing horny poetry.” But if she’s being honest, Dacus confesses, she agrees with Cohen. “Satanist” similarly explores the “boys” — the band’s preferred moniker — trying on identities like costumes. Should they try being an arsonist today, or a nihilist? Should they hunt for “off-brand ecstasy,” like a caricature of a rock star? The track lulls us into a false sense of security until, 90% of the way through, the boys seem to recognize the ultimate failure of playing pretend, and they lapse into uncertainty about who they are. “You hang on until it drags you under,” the trio sings, as the song trails off into a background noise that could be the sound of crashing waves or roaring fans.
The problem of identity is a central theme of “the record” — “Without You Without Them” is the album’s first track and examines togetherness as a mechanism for solidifying individuality. Dacus’s touch is unmistakable here, but the combination of all three of the boys’s voices underscores the song’s insistence that stories can’t exist in isolation. Dacus thanks everyone in her life, from her father, to his mother, to her closest friends and collaborators. She knows what she owes these people, and that responsibility feels sacred. “Who would I be without you, without them?” is the repeated question. It’s the first of a series of “I don’t know” statements — one of “the record’s” main themes. “When you don’t know who you are, you fuck around and find out,” is how Dacus sizes up a lover in “True Blue.” The “I don’t know” trails through “Emily I’m Sorry” and “Not Strong Enough,” so that “the record” contains not a single song the boys’s interrogations about who they think they might be.
While most songs bear the unmistakable signature of one member in particular, my current favorite track is emblematic of boygenius’s talent for fortifying each other’s voices. “Cool About It,” is divided into three parallel stories about re-encountering someone you used to know and love. In many ways, it’s the archetypal boygenius track: It lives in liminal spaces and laughs at masculine posturing, saying “we’ll make fun of the cowboys with their neck tattoos.” It shows boygenius in situations that they think they should be able to handle, but none can avoid the opportunity to confess how much they actually care.
boygenius excel at expressing uncomfortable sincerity. “We’re in Love” juxtaposes the album’s precarious tone with a moment of tentative certainty. Dacus sings, “You could absolutely break my heart, that’s how I know that we’re in love.” The following five minutes are a testament to little intimacies. Her memories exist in the person she loves, so that loving someone becomes partially an act of identifying with them. “There is something about you that I will always recognize,” Dacus promises. It’s a song I only needed to hear once before seeing myself years down the line, still turning over the incredible optimism at the heart of one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. “I could go on and on and on,” Dacus concludes. “And I will.”
Bridgers helmed the song “Revolution 0,” a reference to The Beatles’s “Revolution 9,” which is about how “we all wanna change the world,” but probably can’t. Bridgers’s track is not about revolution, but resignation. She limps to the end until the crucial moment when backing vocals from Baker and Dacus enter to carry their teammate to the finish line. It’s another gorgeous gut punch in boygenius’s discography. In my notes for this song, I just wrote: ‘Jesus.’
“Letters to an Old Poet” — the final song on the album — on the other hand, concludes “the record” on a more hopeful note. The “I don’t know” statement reappears as Bridgers sings, as though to an ex-partner: “I love you. I don’t know why, I just do.” The pace picks up ever-so-slightly as Bridgers turns against her erstwhile lover, someone who said she was selfish, and who she believed. “You made me feel like an equal,” she sings. “But I’m better than you, and you should know that by now.” Bridgers becomes flustered and vengeful, before stopping short. After a pause, in which she seems to realize that she’s moved beyond the initial anger of mourning, Bridgers renounces the relationship with a powerful subversion of boygenius’s “I don’t know” motif. “You don’t know me,” she sings, and this time, it isn’t a question.
“The record” also has plenty of fun, delivering on Baker’s desire for “more sick riffs.” In a recent interview with “The Atlantic,” Baker alluded to one of boygenius’s superpowers; that they’re not afraid to say something you’ve heard before. “What you want to happen happens when you want it to,” she said. “You’re like, ‘And this would be the part where there’s a dropout and a big part!’ And then there is a dropout and a big part.” It’s to Baker’s credit that her excitement to get to the “big part” is palpable in the early bars of songs like “Anti-Curse” and “$20” — our anticipation is as great as hers for the moment when she can finally let it rip.
Describing “the record” to a friend recently, I said that it was “sort of reinventing the wheel, but it’s the greatest wheel ever.” I think this is what Baker means, because “the record” sounds like something you almost already know. boygenius aren’t here to transform themselves in the way that female artists in particular are constantly being pushed to. They’re here to play sick riffs, to strengthen each other’s voices and to make great music together.