Premature Evaluation: boygenius the record

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Premature Evaluation: boygenius the record


They didn’t have to come back. The boygenius EP was a moment in time, and it was special. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus got together to make music when all three of them were poised to conquer the world. Everything about their self-titled 2018 release was cool, from the way the cover art riffed on the first Crosby, Stills & Nash record to the way the band name weaponized the terminology that has always reserved young-genius status for one particular gender. The songs were immaculate — six bangers, no skips. After the EP came out, boygenius went on a single tour together — three solo sets, followed by an encore where they’d all play together and bust out unanticipated covers. And then it was over. You can’t recreate a moment like that. Sometimes, you should just let it be.

For more than four years, boygenius let the moment be. Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker sang backup on each other’s records and on Hayley Williams’ solo album, and they played a one-off benefit show. But all three artists were on their own journeys, their own trajectories. Phoebe Bridgers became something resembling a mainstream star, popping up on this website so often that commenters wondered whether she’d bought it. (She hasn’t, but I bet Scott would take a meeting.) Julien Baker fleshed her sound out, adding sonic waves to something that was once overwhelmingly sparse and joking that she’d become “a post rock band.” Lucy Dacus released the best song ever written about digging your thumbs into somebody’s eyeballs until they pop.

But then boygenius came back. They couldn’t keep their return altogether secret. People saw the three artists doing a photoshoot together, and online speculation swirled. At the beginning of this year, the announcement kicked up a whole lot of dust: an album on a major label, a Coachella spot, a Rolling Stone cover riffing on a different Rolling Stone cover. The PR campaign was loud and striking and masterfully executed, but it wouldn’t mean anything if the record, the first full-length boygenius LP, didn’t deliver the goods. The three women in boygenius know how music history works, and they know that a wack and overhyped follow-up can poison the golden memories of a great debut. Maybe they worried about that possibility, or maybe they just trusted themselves. Either way, they delivered the goods. Just like the EP, the record is special.

Ever since that Rolling Stone cover first appeared, I’ve been wanting to make a snarky rock-nerd joke. On their cover, boygenius recreate Nirvana’s pose on the January 1994 issue of the same magazine. (The 1994 headline: “Success Doesn’t Suck.” Kurt Cobain was dead three months later.) The boygenius cover is awesome. The audacity is a beautiful thing, and the group replicates all the Nirvana boys’ poses and facial expressions with slightly frightening accuracy. My snarky rock-nerd joke was: Rolling Stone fucked up by putting Phoebe Bridgers in the Cobain spot when everyone knows she’s the Grohl. Now that I’ve spent time with the record, though, my snarky rock-nerd joke doesn’t make any sense. There is no Cobain in boygenius — no frontperson. There’s no Grohl or Novoselic, either. That’s the point.

On the self-titled boygenius EP, you could tell which songs were Lucy Dacus songs, which were Julien Baker songs, which were Phoebe Bridgers songs. With the record, that’s often not possible. The album opens with “Without You Without Them,” the song where those three voices melt together in perfect harmony, with no musical accompaniment at all. At different points on the album, different members will take the lead for a song at a time. More often, though, they’ll all mesh together. They’ll trade off verses like a rap group, or they’ll all sing together. All three members of boygenius are credited songwriters on every song. On the record, they sound less like three individual solo artists working together, more like one cohesive whole.

The members of boygenius like each other. That matters, and that’s evident all over the record. You can see it in the “Not Strong Enough” video. All three songwriters have reputations for writing desperately sad music, or maybe even for being desperately sad. In that video, though, they’re euphoric, shooting sunny and silly vacation footage of each other on roller coasters and in art museums. You can see it in the cover art, too: Three hands aloft to the sun, matching tooth wrist tattoos clearly visible. That camaraderie is just as evident in the songs, too. “We’re In Love” is the three members of boygenius singing a love song to one another: “You could absolutely break my heart/ That’s how I know that we’re in love.”

The Rolling Stone cover story explains how the record came to be. Phoebe Bridgers wrote and recorded a demo of “Emily I’m Sorry,” and she immediately knew that it was a boygenius song. So Bridgers sent Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus that demo, and she asked them, “Can we be a band again?” Bridgers: “We all thought that we were more excited than the other person.” The three of them started writing their own demos. They went on songwriting retreats. Then they spent a month living at working at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios, an option that was not available to the group when they made their first EP. They got good people to play on the album — Jay Som on bass, Autolux’s Carla Azar on drums. They produced themselves, with Manchester Orchestra collaborator Catherine Marks co-producing.

They wanted to impress each other. That’s what I’m getting from the record, anyway. On “True Blue”: “When you moved to Chicago, you were spinning out. When you don’t know who you are, you fuck around to find out. When you called me from the train, water freezing in your eyes, you were happy, and I wasn’t surprised.” On “Cool About It”: “Once, I took your medication to know what it’s like, and now I have to act like I can’t read your mind.” On “Letter To An Old Poet: “You said my music is mellow. Maybe I’m just exhausted. You think you’re a good person because you won’t punch me in the stomach.” On “Leonard Cohen”: “Leonard Cohen once said, ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ And I am not an old man having an existential crisis at a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry, but I agree.” These are bars.

There are sad songs on the record, but you knew that. There are also happy songs, angry songs, grateful songs, funny songs, songs about being overwhelmed by a cascade of feelings so layered and complex that you’re doing a disservice to the song and to yourself if you try to assign it a single emotion. One of the ones that really kills me is the penultimate number “Anti-Curse,” where Julien Baker swims out into the ocean, thinks she’s about to drown, and then decides that it wouldn’t be such a bad way to go: “Salt in my lungs, holding my breath, making peace with my inevitable death.” Is that a sad song? Maybe a little bit. But it’s a lot of other things, too.

The songs on the record all sound big, even when they’re small. There are twinkling headrush rockers like “Not Strong Enough.” There are soft, skeletal ruminations like “Revolution 0.” There are out-and-out rockers like “Satanist.” The songs cohere, just like the voices do. The members of boygenius wrote these songs and constructed this album together, and they avoided the trap of making it sound like art by committee. There’s no one dominant voice on the record. Instead, the three members of boygenius found ways to mesh at album length. Every song on the record might not knock you on your ass, but the cumulative effect is really something.

The song from the boygenius EP that sticks with me the most is “Me & My Dog.” That’s the one where Phoebe Bridgers sang about being in a relationship with an unnamed personal hero and about still feeling worthless: “I wanna be emaciated/ I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/ I wish I was on a spaceship, just me and my dog and an impossible view.” Years later, the record ends with a callback. Album closer “Letter To An Old Poet” may or may not be about the same person, but the song’s ending makes explicit reference to “Me & My Dog”: “I wanna be happy/ I’m ready to walk into my room without looking for you/ I’ll go up the top of our building and remember my dog when I see the full moon.”

It can be risky to come back when you’ve made a whole lot of impact with one glittering moment-in-time EP. But when you’ve got something like that to sing, it’s worth the risk.

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