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31 March 2023

On The Record, Boygenius find new power and purpose

On this propulsive debut album, the voices of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers are tonally so singular, yet come together so cleanly.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

A worthwhile supergroup must be more than the sum of its parts. That’s what the best – Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt), Atoms For Peace (featuring Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Red Hot Chili Peppers’s Flea) and my favourites, Case/Lang/Veirs (that’s Neko, KD and Laura) – do so well.

But that kind of inventiveness is no easy feat, even – maybe especially – for a trio as individually accomplished as the members of the US group Boygenius: Lucy Dacus, who writes warm, intelligent indie-folk, Julien Baker, whose confessional lyrics explore spirituality and addiction, and Phoebe Bridgers, the group’s most prominent member thanks to her hit 2020 album Punisher and her caustic social media style. Dacus, Baker and Bridgers are three twenty-something queer women and are outspoken on political issues. They represent a liberal, open-hearted America. Even more so, they each have a remarkable ability to communicate vulnerability via their music. And as they showed on their self-titled EP in 2018, their combined candidness is striking.

Interviewing the group for Rolling Stone, Angie Martoccio neatly summarised their three-pronged appeal: Dacus is the band’s “brain”, Baker is the “heart”, and Bridgers is the “soul”. But that is to oversimplify the members’ roles, to squeeze them into shapes that they have not themselves defined. On The Record, their definitively-titled, much-anticipated debut album, Boygenius work only on their own terms.

[See also: Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia is the natural soundtrack for an age of fear]

On a first listen, it would be possible to miss just what the hype is about. But the beauty of this album lies in its subtleties. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of raucousness, such as “$20”, on which Baker imagines life as an arsonist, and the shriek-fuelled guitar battle of “Satanist”. But Boygenius aren’t obnoxious or in-your-face with their musical expertise. They just quietly get on with it.

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The opening a cappella track, “Without You Without Them”, which Dacus leads, the others providing close harmony, is reminiscent of the Appalachian folk of Mountain Man, a divine sound not previously explored in their solo discographies. It’s a charming opening to a record that makes the most of the distinctions between these three voices, as well as the areas in which their musical styles overlap.

Their vocal harmonies are gorgeously exposed on “Cool About It”. Here, each member takes a verse in turn. They all have the same harmonic structure, but a very different quality – somehow Dacus’s rich voice, for example, lends her verse a similarity to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”. Each makes the song anew.

That their voices sound tonally so singular yet come together so cleanly is thanks to a skilled recording engineer and coolly proficient producer, who knows when the lightest touch will bring maximum effect. That person (who co-produced the album alongside Boygenius, and engineered it) is Catherine Marks, who has worked with acts such as the Killers, Wolf Alice and Alanis Morissette. Notably for this band – whose very name pokes fun at the idea of the “male genius” – Marks is one of very few women in the overwhelmingly male field of producers and engineers.

[See also: Thom Yorke’s The Smile review: echoes of Radiohead]

There are clever musical nuggets that will please dedicated fans, such as the Bridgers-led “Letter to an Old Poet”, on which her voice is papery thin and all the more beautiful for it. “You’re not special, you’re evil,” she sings, a baseball cap slogan in the making. She goes on: “I wanna be happy/I’m ready to walk into my room without looking for you/I’ll go out to the top of our building/And remember my dog when I see the full moon.” Both the melody and the lyrics – and that startling intake of breath part way through the first line – replicate “Me & My Dog”, a fan favourite from the first Boygenius release, which Bridgers has also performed at her own live shows. In that song she sang “I wanna be emaciated”. Now, she is dedicated to a brighter way out.

Dacus, Baker and Bridgers are each known for their “sad girl” persona, for the perfectly miserable lyrics they have their fans singing out at the tops of their voices. Boygenius could have ended up just an inward-looking project, the three of them treading familiar ground and wallowing in that misery together. Occasionally, as on “Emily I’m Sorry”, featuring Bridgers’s whisper-like vocals, they do just that. At other times, as on the intimate yet blistering “Not Strong Enough”, which is propelled by all-American guitars and rolling drums, they find a power in their shared self-deprecation. As Dacus, Baker and Bridgers share the verses, dipping in and out of lead and backing vocals, singing about “drag-racing through the canyon”, how they’re “always an angel, never a god”, they throw the doors wide open.

The Record by Boygenius is out now on Interscope Records

[See also: Radiohead’s eerie Creep remix is the perfect soundtrack for an age of crisis]

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