Review: boygenius’ the record lets three voices and styles soar in unison
We don’t need boygenius’ music to be gutting. Maybe we expect it to be — looking at the collective repertoires of members Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, joy and whimsy are phrases tossed around far less than wanting and wistful.
The group first came together as boygenius for a 2018 self-titled EP, which skewed far into folk. While usually one singer would lead at a time, the vocals were often layered: there was a sense that no song belonged to just one person. On track “Me & My Dog,” in a harsh few seconds, they wailed, “I wanna be emaciated.” A word like “emaciated,” sung in harmony, instruments silent, stung in its singularity. But now, after years of further defining their own styles, their powers have grown separate. While that separation could be divisive, instead the trio’s strengthened in their pursuits, thereby ushering more conviction and assuredness into each song. It feels easy to ebb and flow; to come together and pull apart in waves, each crest pushing a new person forward.
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On their first full-length album, the record, they sing, “I wanna be happy.” They take the same pause before the adjective as they had five years prior on “emaciated”; they sing near-identical notes. Then, they add, “I’m ready.”
In many ways, the record is a first step into intentional happiness. They’re conceding to wrongs; they’re basking in being understood; they’re emerging from the flames of the past. But the stronger their voices get, the more complicated it has become to put all three together. While each song on the record stands firmly on its own, standouts like “Not Strong Enough” excel due to a variation in leading vocals and a combination of the styles each has so thoroughly developed since their first collaboration. Though solely-led songs could easily fit in their respective solo work, it’s notable that the record includes these tracks: it shows boygenius holding space for and granting clarity to each member’s contribution. What better way to highlight your friend than to let them take the lead?
Folksy, near-vaudeville opener “Without You Without Them” is auspiciously introductory: they sing, “I want you to hear my story and be a part of it.” There’s a communion to the song, the notion of shared expression, that’s core to the record and its ideal friendship: being fully understood, even for your failings, and hearing each other speak.
The implicated collective storytelling gives leeway to the following three songs, which were written individually. “$20,” “Emily I’m Sorry,” and “True Blue” — notably a Baker song (scorched guitar), then a Bridgers song (subterranean), then a Dacus song (crisp and warm) — are each a wonderful highlight of a single artist. However, they speak little to the group’s combined powers.
boygenius comes together as the album continues, however, to a more satisfying effect: “Cool About It” hearkens to the folk-led EP, with a touch of Simon & Garfunkel “The Boxer”-esque fingerpicking. When passing leading vocals from hand to hand, the record feels more like a unit than a series of works. Similarly, “Not Strong Enough” comes off as a collective yell, a propulsive group self-excoriation — and it’s a bit tougher to pin just who wrote it. The layering of vocals and harmonies through the bridge grant a force and clarity that boygenius’ members only achieve when singing together.
Look to that “I wanna be happy” that overtakes closer “Letter to An Old Poet.” Their voices swarm up amid the stark production, granting beautiful, unmitigated support. The happiness is in moving on, forward, and up. “I can’t feel it yet,” Bridgers closes, “but I am” — here she’s blocked out by loud piano, whirring, claustrophobic production, as the others join in — “winning.” The “winning” is drawn out so long as to be nearly indistinguishable as a word. But the finality of triumph, spoken after all that noise, is the album’s definitive close.
They won in this friendship, in its security. They protect each other (“Revolution 0,” “Letter to An Old Poet”) and celebrate each other (“True Blue,” “Leonard Cohen”). They grow through that love. As Dacus sings in “Leonard Cohen,” “I never thought you’d happen to me.” And that’s where the magic lies. The record is strongest when all three stand together at the forefront. Their individual styles make for compelling individual careers — and those songs still succeed. But to hear a moment of them in unison is to wish for more and more of it.
An album meant to celebrate the detour, the record circles multiple roadside points of interest on the map, each notably unique and essential to the total journey. And as we travel along, it’s heartening to know how much the driver and passengers love just being together in the car.