boygenius, the record review: Indie supergroup are greater than the sum of their parts on spectacular debut

Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker deliver and then some on their keenly anticipated debut album

Helen Brown
Thursday 30 March 2023 13:32 BST
From left to right: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker
From left to right: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker (Harrison Whitford)

“I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself,” sigh boygenius on their keenly anticipated debut album the record. In interviews, the indie supergroup comprising Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus have said that writing songs together has enabled them to be more “earnest” than in their solo material. This doesn’t mean that all 12 songs are straightforward confessionals. Most of them slot together with an appealing combination of simplicity and enigma – like those little puzzle cubes made of three types of wood. All the while, you can hear the careful questioning with which the songwriters have honed one another’s thoughts until they slot smoothly together to become satisfying tactile emotional experiences.

the record opens a cappella with the three women’s voices weaving through the old-timey melody of “Without You Without Them”. (The song was written by Dacus and it seems all three wrote independently before bringing compositions to the group for refinement.) It sounds like they’re all gathered around a single mic in an empty church hall wearing tea dresses (fans of Applewood Road’s eponymous 2016 album will love it). The song is a celebration of a friendship and artistic collaboration built on intimate conversation: “Speak to me, speak to me, speak to me until your history’s no mystery.” It’s a line balanced later on the record by the fear that “I might like you less now you know me so well”.

But after this tender, in-the-wings moment, boygenius take to the stage and get crunchy. After the release of their lullsome 2018 EP, Baker felt the band needed “more sick riffs” and promptly knocked out “$20”. It’s a track on which every electric guitar chord feels like a sheet of paper Baker scrunches into a ragged ball and hurls – angrily and accurately – into a metal bin. Crumple-clang. Lyrically, it begins a series of journey-tales with runaway fantasy of rundown cars, loaded shotguns. The women rock their f***-it wit: “It’s a bad idea and I’m all about it,” they carol before boasting that in another life “we were arsonists”. Over the raggedly revved riff of “Satanist”, they take things further, asking: “Will you become a satanist with me? Sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie?”

They’ve all spoken of sharing their favourite songs in cars. Bridgers’ need to convert her friends to Iron & Wine’s “Trapeze Swing” apparently took them on an hour-long detour. That experience is described on “Leonard Cohen” on which the late Cohen is playfully dismissed as “an old man having an existential crisis in a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry”. Across the record, you can pick out the lightly worn influence of other artists on their carshare playlists. Those artists are mostly men and (as befits a group whose name is a swipe at the deification of male songwriters) so boygenius often poke revealing holes in the themes and melodies they reference. On “Strong Enough”, they directly tackle the way female musicians are reliably treated as “always an angel, never a god”.

You can hear the singers’ collective love of Elliott Smith’s swoony-sweary moods and Nebraska-era Springsteen narratives in the woozy, night-drive romance of Bridgers’ exquisite “Emily I’m Sorry”. Their voices rise above a highway heat-haze of muffled drums and low-slung riffing as they tell the story of a woman at the wheel leaving a town populated by veterans, pointing out the North Star and “becoming somebody only you could want”. “True Blue” is a chunky, grunge-edged tune that takes us from sunny beach trips to leaky Chicago apartments. The prettily picked “Cool About It” springs from a melody that nods wryly back at Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”. While Simon’s 1969 song was about a boy alone in the big city, theirs is a tale of feeling alone while in a relationship. “Once I took your medication to know what it’s like/ And now I have to act like I can’t read your mind.” The euphoric self-pity of Simon’s old “lie-la-lie” is more bleakly echoed here with a line like: “I ask you how you’re doing, and I let you lie.”

The women’s deep connection is hymned on “We’re in Love”. When Dacus first played it for her bandmates, Bridgers reportedly became tearful and Baker winced. She unpacks their songwriting process as she sings: “We stripped down to our skin/ Cold and porcelain/ Like bathers in a painting.” It’s a sentiment that nails the discomforts of self-revelation. But the unification of the three voices – after all the difficult group therapy of the writing process – wraps a warm blanket around those fears. And that’s how the record will leave you feeling. Like you’ve heard some difficult truths in a very safe space.

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