For indie-rock supergroup Boygenius and the trio’s spectacular debut LP The Record, fascination runs several levels deep.
First, there’s the timing. Singer/songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus all ascended around the same time on the heels of three critically acclaimed debut albums: Baker in 2015 with Sprained Ankle, Dacus with No Burden in 2016, Bridgers in 2017 with Stranger in the Alps. Not only did they become mutual admirers and friends, but they then joined forces in 2018 to release a self-titled EP.
Then, there’s the gumption to keep such a band going: Boygenius could’ve easily been a one-off, as each artist has become more popular in her own right (namely Bridgers, who’s now recognized as a folk/pop SNL darling who is opening stadium shows for Taylor Swift). Instead, they doubled down and reunited to produce The Record itself, a collaborative winner delightfully devoid of ego or pretense. Here, each voice works to create something greater than the sum of its parts, which is rare for supergroups.
The seamless 12-track album is divided evenly between the three singers; each takes lead on four songs, with the other two providing auxiliary verses, harmonies, or both. Never does one perspective overstep its bounds, even as The Record manages to showcase each members’ distinct approaches: the crunching soft-punk Baker explored on 2021’s romping Little Oblivions; the delicate, emo-informed devastations of Bridgers’ Punisher; and Dacus’ hyper-specific sense of nostalgia and the margins of love on ‘21’s arresting Home Video.
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The songwriting styles meld together, forging a collective search for identity that begins with the a cappella opener “Without You Without Them,” where Dacus leads an Andrews Sisters-leaning entré: “Thank your father before you, his mother before him / Who would I be without you, without them?”
“I’m 27 and I don’t know who I am,” Bridgers bemoans on “Emily, I’m Sorry,” a wisping and doleful tune of regret and shame bolstered by Baker and Dacus’s soothing echoes. It sure is good fortune how effortlessly their tones combine: Baker high, Bridgers middle, Dacus low, like three keys turning the same lock.
The three-part harmony builds to an eruption on “Not Strong Enough,” The Record’s catchiest jam. The bridge repeats with more fervor on each pass (“Always an angel, never a God”), punctuating the Bridgers-led track’s theme of selfish self-loathing. However, it’s perhaps more fun when each woman passes the mic and keeps a verse for herself — think Fugees meets emo-folk — like on the Paul Simon-inspired “Cool About It,” which examines a decaying relationship from three sides.
Baker’s “Satanist” is a more upbeat roundabout, fueled by ‘90s alt-rock styled guitar scuzz as she petitions the listener to sell their soul. It gives way to a free-wheeling Bridgers asking, “Will you be an anarchist with me? / Sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie.” Then Dacus swoops in to invoke the nihilists, musing about how “Solomon had a point when he wrote ‘Ecclesiastes’ / If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy.”
Beyond Old Testament proclamations, the album drips with references both external and built within the Boygenius Cinematic Universe, offering the listener a full meal. Amid the Rilo Kiley-esque indie punch of “$20,” Baker sings, “pushing the flowers that come up into the front of a shotgun,” nodding to photographer Bernie Boston’s Pulitzer-winning Vietnam protest photo. Dacus’s “Leonard Cohen,” a playful snapshot of friendship and a welcome bit of levity, contains pieces of Cohen’s 1992 cut “Anthem.” And on Dacus’ tender yet doubting “We’re in Love,” the outro contains the lyric, “And I could go on and on, on and on, and I will,” plucked from Swift’s 1989 track “This Love.” In totality, it’s a thoughtful and well-studied effort that moves far beyond the side-project sentiment of the debut EP.
At moments, that project felt unsteady — like a first date with requisite awkward pauses. Instead, The Record plays more like a longstanding marriage, with conversation moving easily and free to dig deeper.
The mutual respect is palpable, as is this project’s peripheral effect in propelling each artist toward their next — and now even more highly anticipated — solo efforts. But for now, fans should revel in this recrossing of prime careers, as three dazzling songwriters move as one in their search for answers. Like on Bridgers’ pensive slow-burner “Revolution 0,” where all three meet for the exasperated refrain: “If it isn’t love, then what the fuck is it?”