Boygenius’s “Record” of Friendship and Mutual Obsession

The title of the first full-length boygenius album, like many aspects of the band’s fledgling lore, is a playful little in-joke that functions as both a wink and a provocation. The three singer-songwriters who make up the group—Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus—are all successful solo indie-rock stars, who have amassed overlapping but highly specific fan bases over the past decade. After crossing paths while touring, they released a twenty-two-minute, self-titled joint EP, in 2018, and found themselves the subject of furious hype. Newsweek declared them “the year’s most promising indie-rock supergroup.” NME called the project “astonishing” and gave it five stars. The women only played a handful of tour dates as a unit before splitting off to make new solo albums. Still, for the past five years, they have fielded constant inquiries about whether they’ll be getting back together to make a full-length record. So, when they finally did, the record became “the record,” an LP released on Friday—its title a punch line about the impossible weight of making music under such outsized anticipation. Although the band’s name is another sardonic reference, to the inflated praise that tends to adhere to young male rock musicians, boygenius now finds itself in the ironic position of being the object of its own kind of fated cultural anointment. When Rolling Stone announced the LP, earlier this year, they did so by putting Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus on the cover, styled in the exact same suits that the members of Nirvana wore for their iconic 1994 cover of the magazine.

The “rock band,” as an object of public fascination, feels a bit archaic these days. Musical collaborations still happen all the time, but they tend to manifest as transient collisions between solo artists. We are in the golden age of the guest verse, whereas the supergroup, in which each member has the charisma and the billing of a front person, feels a bit like a throwback. The boygenius members have all, in the past, publicly expressed an allergy to the commodification and cultishness that comes with becoming a phenomenon. (The Nirvana comparison continues beyond the outfits.) The cover of “the record” is a photo of the three musicians’ matching tattoos of teeth, inspired by their 2018 song “Bite The Hand,” about pushing away intrusive fans. They’ve resisted the label “supergroup,” even while acknowledging that “side project” is too minimizing a term for an album that they’ve all set aside a full year to promote. But they’ve also kind of leaned into an old-school rock-and-roll mythos, making playful allusions to famous musical team-ups of the past, including “Trio,” the 1987 platinum record made by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. The cover of their EP mimics a cover of a 1969 Crosby, Stills, and Nash album. The boygenius members share a generational knack for making a preëmptive reference in order to assure you that they cannot really mean it—or can they?

This overdetermined sense of a band about to blow, and the easily consumable narrative of inseparable-B.F.F. band members, might seem suspicious if the music that they made wasn’t undeniably good. The EP was an ambitious, supremely catchy set of songs. What it lacked in cohesion—each artist clearly brought two of her own compositions to show-and-tell with the group—it made up for in lustrous melodies and bewitching lyrical refrains. I’ve never liked Bridgers more than when she sings “Me & My Dog,” the fuzzed-out banger that has become the EP’s biggest hit, causing audiences, during the band’s few live shows, to scream-sing the self-deprecating line “I wanna be emaciated!” Bridgers, who is twenty-eight years old with ice-blond hair and a health-goth style, has the most mainstream following of the boygenius members for her grungy elliptical koans about sunbaked sorrow. Of the three, she is the only one to have performed a set on “Saturday Night Live”—during which she smashed an electric guitar, prompting a rash of pearl-clutchy think pieces—or to have her personal life picked apart in gossip columns. And yet, when she performs with boygenius, she sounds less like a Sylvia Plath of the palms and more open to fresh, even optimistic, ways to express herself.

The EP marked a focussing of the other women’s talents, too. Baker, a petite, spritely twenty-seven-year-old Tennesseean who was raised in an evangelical family, writes music more out of the emo/straight-edge tradition than her bandmates. Her searching, plaintive songs sometimes sound like sermons, and her vibratoless voice always seems dangerously close to breaking, as on “Stay Down,” a song she fronted on the EP in which she compares herself to a sinner being pushed under the water before repeatedly yawping “So I stay down!” Lucy Dacus, a tall, twenty-seven-year-old brunette from Richmond, Virginia, with the creamy complexion and crimson pout of a Sargent portrait, has the most unique voice of the group—a husky mezzo-soprano, like Joni Mitchell if she had retained her upper range despite her nicotine habit—and her songs tend to be more invested in poetic allusion. In her best track on the EP, “Salt in the Wound,” she sings of a toxic lover, “You take and you take / Like silks up my sleeve.” Dacus brings a sense of wit to all of her songs, and with boygenius she seemed to be trying to dazzle her bandmates with wordplay. “You butter me up,” she sings on the EP, “and you sit down to eat.”

The LP, by comparison, sounds like the work of a group newly insistent that they are a united musical entity. Observant fans will still easily be able to pick out which songs are “Phoebe songs” versus “Julien songs” versus “Lucy songs.” But there is a new level of intertextuality among the three singers, whose hearty generosity and palpable eagerness to be together seem to temper the possibility of any one voice becoming dominant. The opening track, “Without You Without Them,” is a dulcet, one-minute a-cappella ditty that could easily be a found recording from Appalachia (or a nod to the folk harmonies on “Trio”). The lyrics—written by Dacus, also the group’s arch sentimentalist—express gratitude for having met one another. “Thank your father before you, / his mother before him,” they sing in harmony. “Who would I be without you, without them?” This is the kind of rhapsodic romanticism that flows out of the early days of close female friendship, when you are not sure if you are in love with the other person or just in love with the fact that you finally have someone to talk to. That this gushy affection is trichotomous is part of the boygenius allure—three can be a messy number when it comes to friends, lovers, and bandmates, but, so far, the Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker triangle is refreshingly equilateral. To listen to their music is to partake, vicariously, in the joy of their impassioned entanglement. In a new, nearly fifteen-minute music video called, simply, “the film”—directed by the actor Kristen Stewart—the band engages in a slow-motion, three-way make-out session while covered in blue paint.

In other ways, too, “the record” is a story of mutual revelation and the many ways that it can unfold. “$20,” a guitar-heavy road-trip rambler that opens with Baker singing “It’s a bad idea and I’m all about it,” is a different kind of Americana—motorcycles and ill-advised trips to Reno, the reckless imagery of the newly besotted. The mood shifts again with “Emily I’m Sorry,” the next track, with Bridgers taking the lead to sing about her vacillating state of mind. “I’m twenty-seven and I don’t know who I am,” Bridgers sings, “but I know what I want.” Dacus then pulls up with “True Blue,” a honeyed ode to a loyal companion. “It feels good to be known so well,” she croons. These first four tracks—a third of the album’s trim collection of twelve—run the gamut of boygenius emotions. There’s haphazard dirtbag camaraderie, shared self-destructive tendencies, and heartfelt lines of tribute, and the rest of the record toggles among these states as each of the women step in to sing. But “the record” also emphasizes the three members’ ability to meld when a song calls for it, as on “Not Strong Enough,” the most radio-friendly tune on the LP. When the band’s label released the album’s lyrics, they sent around a color-coded PDF noting who wrote which line. Some songs—such as the gooey slow dance “Revolution 0,” which contains the Bridgers lyrics “I don’t want to die. / That’s a lie,” or the short, sweet “Leonard Cohen,” in which Dacus sings “I am not an old man having an existential crisis / at a Buddhist monastery”—are overwhelmingly one color, the product of a single author. “Not Strong Enough,” by contrast, is a rainbow on the page. At the end of the song, all three women sing the refrain “Always an angel, never a god” over and over, and the repetition builds to a euphoric effect. This is not a jockeying for power but the elation of sharing it.

“Not Strong Enough” does not sound like any other song on “the record”; if anything, it sounds a bit like early Sheryl Crow, from whom the band borrowed the song title. But no two tracks on the album have much in common, and its grab-bag approach to genre feels like another generational flex. “Satanist” sounds like a Weezer bop, whereas “Revolution 0” has the gentle lilt of an Elliott Smith homage. The ethos holding the band together is one of experimentation and fond allusion rather than loyalty to any one vision. All three musicians came of age in the era of shuffling playlists and collapsing styles, when the boundaries between rock, folk, hip-hop, and electronic became so membranous that the categories began to lose meaning. By nestling stadium-ready, almost stupidly hooky jams against hushed acoustic meditations, the boygenius members seem to take an unencumbered view of what a “rock album” should be. They could be any kind of band they want to be, but the feeling their music evokes, a seesawing between clowning and candor, is more important than sonic consistency. Perhaps this restless jumble, the prioritizing of mood over order, is part of what makes boygenius the band of the moment.

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