Album Review: boygenius, ‘the record’

    There’s music about intimacy, and then there’s music about intimacy between the people making it. boygenius songs have a way of being gut-punchingly honest no matter who they’re addressing, but the ones celebrating the bond between the trio – Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus – are bound to be a different kind of special. Their friendship felt so precious that when Dacus first came up with ‘We’re in Love’, a song whose first-person plural is entirely unambiguous, Baker was slightly mortified by the idea of making such earnestness public. “You could absolutely break my heart,” it begins, “That’s how I know that we’re in love.” The group’s debut album, the record, is filled with such killer lines, and you don’t need to have any actual or parasocial investment for them to destroy you. That kind of love is as obvious, rare, and universal as it gets.

    It’s getting around the image of it that’s tricky. Since the release of their excellent self-titled EP in 2018, the three artists’ solo work has moved in different directions and continued to garner a great amount of acclaim. A boygenius full-length is an event like so few in indie rock today, and it’s impossible to separate any reaction to it from the massive hype. boygenius are aware of this, so the fact that they were willing to follow through means that they were making more than just a sensible decision. the record does not exist in a vacuum, but I like to think it lives in its own kind of bubble – “their bubble” is in fact how they describe the safe space they’ve carved out for themselves. It might be hard to pretend you don’t know who’s singing these songs – you don’t, really – but try to really listen and the atmosphere, the chemistry, speaks for itself.

    A lot of the record happens to be about pretending – the foolish effort of bottling yourself up when there’s clearly unresolved feelings and tension hanging in the air, of trying to act sane when you’re spiraling. There’s blurriness in that space. The frustration of ‘Emily I’m Sorry’ masks itself as apologetic tenderness, or maybe the other way round, and when Bridgers maps a possible future for the relationship in the second verse, there’s a bit of respite in the defeatism: “Just take me back to Montreal/ I’ll get a real job, you’ll go back to school/ We can burn out in the freezing cold and just get lost.” ‘Emily I’m Sorry’ is the first song Bridgers brought to the band for the album, and it’s clear why it wouldn’t be the same as a solo track: it’s those harmonies that make the song come alive, as if coaxing the thoughts out of her own head.

    ‘Emily I’m Sorry’ was released as part of a trio of singles along with ‘$20’ and ‘True Blue’, and their connectedness shines even more in the context of the album. ‘$20’ begins from Baker’s perspective – “It’s a bad idea, and I’m all about it” – and when Dacus and Bridgers join in, their interplay becomes louder and more erratic, a flurry of conflict. On the Dacus-led ‘True Blue’, her bandmates’ vocals recede slightly further into the background, which feels appropriate as the lyrics mirror parts of ‘Emily I’m Sorry’ but cast them in a more reflective light. “When you called me from the train, water freezing in your eyes, you were happy and I wasn’t surprised,” she sings about someone who’s moved on, plainly stating why she still clings to the memories: “I remember who I am when I’m with you.”

    Some of the deep cuts circle around a similar dynamic. The backing vocals fizzle out almost completely on ‘Revolution 0’, the softest and most melancholy song on the album, one that, like the relationship it wrestles with, becomes a ghostly echo of itself: “If it isn’t love then what the fuck is it?/ I guess just let me pretend.” ‘Cool About It’, on the other hand, finds each member taking turns to relay what they wish for in a post break-up encounter, and all the ways they fail: “feeling like an absolute fool about it,” “feeling like an I’m breaking a sweat about it,” “feel like drowning.” (I’ll let you guess who’s who.) As they’re sequenced, the songs cleverly play off each other in ways that keep the record engaging, but it’s the contrasts layered in individual moments like ‘Not Strong Enough’ – sturdily sandwiched between ‘Cool About It’ and ‘Revolution 0’ – that have the most visceral impact.

    There’s another song on the record that reflects the group’s bond, and that’s ‘Leonard Cohen’. It’s about the time Bridgers was so excited to play a song for them during a road trip that she drove the wrong way: “You felt like an idiot, adding an hour to the drive, but it gave us more time to embarrass ourselves, telling stories we wouldn’t tell anyone else,” Dacus recalls. (The song was ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ by Iron & Wine. Cohen inspires another line, which you simply have to hear for yourself.) From the moment their voices intertwine on opener ‘Without You, Without Them’, they individually drift around this space they’ve created, weaving back and forth, but they never feel isolated. That’s what makes it feel like a boygenius record.

    When it comes on, ‘Leonard Cohen’ itself seems like a small diversion, a naked acknowledgment of the support they’ve provided each other up until that point. “I never thought you’d happen to me,” it concludes, not even two minutes in. Then you realize it’s the ride they’ve been on all along, the one they really cherish. “Damn, that makes me sad,” Dacus sings, characteristically reacting to her own imaginary scene, on ‘We’re in Love’. “It doesn’t have to be like that/ If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part?” Of course, sadness alone doesn’t cut it. When it twists a knot in your stomach, a whole swirl of emotion’s caught up in there. the record, friendly soldier in waiting, will help you breathe it out.

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    There’s music about intimacy, and then there’s music about intimacy between the people making it. boygenius songs have a way of being gut-punchingly honest no matter who they’re addressing, but the ones celebrating the bond between the trio – Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and...Album Review: boygenius, 'the record'