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The Debut Album From Boygenius Is Even Better Than Everyone Had Hoped

Something weird, unpredictable, and slightly dangerous happens when Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus meld their distinct songwriting voices


Harrison Whitford*

Music history is full of supergroups, but there’s never been one like boygenius, which is why the label doesn’t do them justice. They’re simply a world-beatingly great band, with three of the most brilliant singer-songwriters in the game. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus all came into boygenius with their own totally distinct styles, not to mention their own hardcore audiences, teaming up with a communal pass-the-mic spirit. They’ve finally dropped their long-awaited full-length debut with The Record — but it’s even better than everybody had hoped.

There’s no mistaking those individual voices. But the power of boygenius is how something weird, unpredictable, and slightly dangerous happens when these three musical minds meld. All over The Record, they prove they’re a band that can do it all, hitting peaks together that can’t be reached any other way.

The Record is a huge leap from the original six-song EP that boygenius dropped on an unsuspecting world in 2018. That was the sound of three very different indie-rock poets having a bash at joining their voices, yet finding that alchemical connection. All three were coming off triumphant solo breakthroughs — Dacus’ Historian, Baker’s Turn Out the Lights, Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps. Yet they were as shocked by the results as anyone else. It might not be a coincidence they all moved from boygenius to make even greater albums — Dacus’ Home Video, Baker’s Little Oblivions, Bridgers’ Punisher.

But boygenius made The Record as a band-band, self-consciously going for a group identity that’s different from the sum of the parts. The album is paced to flow like an old-school LP, with 12 songs in 42 minutes, splicing straight-for-the-jugular songs with detours and in-jokes. It’s a gloriously expansive rock & roll statement, buzzing with bravado and power-jangle air-guitar bangers side by side with introspective acoustic whispers.

Emotionally, these tunes are pissed off frequently, love-sick typically, messy always. Yet the characters here always seem to have heads crammed with music, translating their feelings into sound. For them, as Baker sings in the fantastic “Anti-Curse,” falling in love feels like “writing words/To the worst love song you’ve ever heard/Sounding out the foreign characters.”

It was just a week after Bridgers released her epochal 2020 masterwork Punisher that she emailed a demo to the other two and asked, “Can we be a band again?” They worked on The Record in secrecy with co-producer Catherine Marks at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu. (They spent a month making it, quite a change from the 2018 EP, which they had to crash out in four days.) The results seem to answer Bridgers’ question with another question: How could boygenius ever not be a band?

They gave their first taste of the new music in January, to go with their Rolling Stone cover: three lead singles, each written separately by a different one of the boys. Baker’s “$20,” Bridgers’ “Emily I’m Sorry,” and Dacus’ “True Blue.” But the rest of these tunes are deeper collaborations. They’ll try anything — as Baker sings in the killer opening line of “$20,” “It’s a bad idea, and I’m all about it.”

“Not Strong Enough” shows off the inventive sonics — opening with a few strums of Joni Mitchell guitar before swooshing into 1980s New Order, with a chorus that tweaks Sheryl Crow’s classic “Strong Enough,” though the verses go more for the moldy-bread vibe of “If It Makes You Happy” or “A Change Would Do You Good.” Baker cheerily sings, “Drag racing through the canyon/Singing ‘Boys Don’t Cry’/Do you see us getting scraped up off the pavement?”

“Revolution 0” (dig that clever White Album title) is Bridgers’ breathy, pained ballad of long-distance desire, as she muses, “Imaginary friend, you live up in my head,” building to the question: “If it isn’t love, then what the fuck is it?” The banjo-driven “Cool About It” weaves three different stories of post-breakup meetings gone horribly wrong. “Once I took your medication to know what it’s like,” Bridgers confesses in a stiletto-sharp murmur. “Now I have to act like I can’t read your mind/I ask you how you’re doing and I let you lie.”

Dacus made her name with long-bomb soliloquies that build into soul exorcisms, like “Night Shift,” “Map on a Wall,” and “Triple Dog Dare.” Like Leonard Cohen, who inspires one of her tunes here, she’s a songwriter who loves to hit her stride at the seven-minute mark. She reaches that power with the album’s highlight, “We’re in Love,” a towering ballad where she sifts through fragments of broken stories, trying to make them fit together. “Some October, in the future, I’ll run out of trash TV,” Dacus predicts. “I’ll be lonely so I’ll walk to karaoke/Singing the song you wrote about me/Never once checking the words.” But even at the karaoke bar, it’s too damn intense to face up to the emotions in that song. As she adds, “I hope that nobody sings along/I hope that I’m not a regular.”

And just in case the song hasn’t quite destroyed you at this point, “We’re in Love” takes a turn at the end when she flips one of Taylor Swift’s most wittiest lyrical asides — “I could go on and on and on/And I will,” from the 1989 deep cut “This Love,” with all three boygeniuses singing along. This is definitely the cancel-your-week emotional bloodbath of the album.

boygenius go to their other sonic extreme for “Anti-Curse,” with Baker’s powerhouse voice over guitar/synth-rock slam-o-rama, somewhere between The Joshua Tree and “Since U Been Gone.” She sings about a personal reckoning, with spectacularly atmospheric drum rolls. In her moment of truth, she tells herself, “You don’t have to make it bad/Just because you know how.” The one-two punch of “We’re in Love” and “Anti-Curse” sums up boygenius’ rock bravado. All over The Record, they keep recombining their individual styles into a different kind of chemistry for each song. That’s why they transcend any kind of “supergroup” cliché. After all, supergroups are a dime a dozen compared to actual great bands. And boygenius leave no doubt about where they stand.

From Rolling Stone US