“When You Wake Up, They’ll Be Gone Again”: Boygenius Returns
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Hype is building for the release of The Record. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus have finally reunited as “boygenius.” Boygenius (stylized in lowercase) is the epitome of a supergroup; the band consists of three of the most potent and talented solo indie rock musicians of our generation. Formed in 2018, boygenius started as a small side project for the three friends—an outlet to express their femininity and combat the inherent patriarchy of the indie rock scene. Bridgers addressed the message behind the group’s name in a 2018 Vogue interview, explaining that, “Men are taught to be entitled to space and that their ideas should be heard because they’re great ideas, and women are taught the opposite—that they should listen instead of speak… So a ‘boygenius’ is someone who, [for] their whole life, has been told that their ideas are genius.” Boygenius creates the space for these three artists to share their stories.
Boygenius’s 2018 self-titled debut EP represented a seamless amalgamation of the members’ signature melancholic styles, yet still managed to preserve their unique cadences. In the five years since its debut, boygenius has become a larger phenomenon than its creators anticipated, demonstrated by two significant announcements for the year ahead: a performance at the Coachella Music Festival and their first full-length album, The Record. The album will be released on March 31 with 12 new songs, including the three singles released last month: “$20,” “Emily, I’m Sorry,” and “True Blue.” The Record’s lead singles were written by each member independently, weaving distinct narratives into a greater whole. Fans have been waiting to hear how these individual voices will intertwine.
The album’s first single, “$20,” captures the vivacious sensitivity of Julien Baker’s previous projects: Sprained Ankle (2015), Turn Out the Lights (2017), and Little Oblivions (2021), each equally packed with folksy emotional rawness. The song helps Baker push her boundaries through accenting vocals, a trend reminiscent of her musical style; Baker creates music imbued with decadent instrumentation, and her lyrics are often drawn from personal experiences, such as religious trauma, substance abuse, and sexual identity. She overlaps these themes with lyrical descriptions of self-destruction and paradox—a pattern she continues in “$20”: “Pushing the flowers that come up / Into the front of a shotgun / So many hills to die on.” The song alludes to self-harm and the relief of physically releasing anguish, a jarring juxtaposition to the buoyant melody. “$20” serves as the perfect introduction to the project; the listener is bombarded with upbeat riffs that remain unwavering throughout the entire song—a clear departure from boygenius’s debut, in which each track reached a staggering crescendo. While Baker is the star of “$20,” Bridgers and Dacus bring dimensionality by providing mellowed harmonies to complement the ends of Baker’s verses. As the song progresses, the voices diverge from unison, producing a dynamic echo. The track concludes with Bridgers’s gut-wrenching screams, similar to the final notes of “I Know the End,” the closer of Bridgers’s Punisher (2020). The chaotic intensity of “$20” validates any agitation listeners might be feeling, establishing early on that mental health struggles are a recurring theme of the album.
Phoebe Bridgers has rallied a cult following for her “sad girl” indie folk triumphs: Stranger in the Alps (2017) and the Grammy-nominated Punisher (2020). Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers’s critically acclaimed debut album, documents intimacy through elaborate descriptions of mundane memories. Bridgers is known for her angelic delivery of lyrical heaviness, utilizing acoustic guitar and strident piano symphonies on songs like “Motion Sickness” (2017). Despondency is a constant attribute of Bridgers’s vocals, and this is no different in “Emily I’m Sorry,” The Record’s second single. Bridgers’s voice is permeated with guilt and melancholy. However, “Emily I’m Sorry” is nearly too typical of Phoebe Bridgers’s style, and Dacus and Baker are lost in the entrancing fragility of her vocals. Perhaps there is a painful familiarity in being isolated in autonomy; Bridgers feels she cannot break the patterns of her past. Regret and shame are clearly entwined as she begs for forgiveness: “Emily, forgive me, can we / Make it up as we go along? / I’m 27 and I don’t know who I am / But I know what I want.” These lyrics reveal what boygenius is all about: searching for an outlet for authentic expression in a world of uncertainty.
Comfort and resolution arrive in the last single, “True Blue.” Bridgers and Baker join Dacus in the chorus, but, besides their background vocals, the composition is unmistakably Dacus’s. The upbeat tempo of the track speaks with unapologetic adoration for love in all its forms. Dacus sings, “But it feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself / I remember who I am when I’m with you.” While a somber tone prevails in this typical indie track, there is a sense of longing and devotion. Dacus’s undying passion is a common thread throughout her discography. Her latest album, Home Video (2021), speaks to the tender heartbreaks of Dacus’s teenage years and simultaneously demonstrates her comprehensive range of musical styles and abilities. Dacus transitions from fast-moving songs about irreplaceable friends to stripped-down confessions of wanting to kill her friend’s manipulative father. Dacus displays undeniable versatility and potential that will hopefully be showcased throughout The Record.
The Record is a melodic collision of three highly skilled artists. While the collaboration offered a promising opportunity to synergize and combine the trio’s talents, the album is seemingly presented as a collection of “greatest hits” from each artist. Nonetheless, the band has exhibited notable growth from their last project in 2018. The past five years have been an intense period of transformation for many, and the women of boygenius are no exception. While The Record brought much hope for more cohesion, listeners will still find the artists as independent operators on the tracks. If collaboration was what this effort sought, the singles of The Record do not achieve that aspiration. How do you work collectively after working for so long in the isolation of quarantine? Questions can be raised about whether harmonious artistry is still possible after the pandemic.