The boygenius plan could have been a disaster: throw a few songwriters with unconnected styles into a supergroup, give them a ridiculously short time to write and record an album, and then get the album out as quickly as possible. Fortunately, boygenius – the trio of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus – aren’t just any supergroup. The trio have spoken repeatedly about the friendships that sparked the endeavor and their joy in genuine collaboration. The resulting self-titled EP is a masterwork in blending individual styles into a smooth, singular piece of art that’s affecting throughout.
The three artists connected on tours, but they don’t necessarily fit easily together. Bridgers sits most comfortably in folk settings, while Dacus is more an indie rocker. Baker does something more indefinable, a brand of rock notable for its emotional weight as well as its sharp production. Across boygenius, each artist has her moments lyrically and vocally, but the resulting work melds them to the point that it would take a little guessing to figure out who wrote or conceived what. “Salt in the Wound” sounds like it could have come from any of the three writers, but the guitar work sounds like Dacus while the track builds like Baker.
But the guessing game is the least interesting part of the album. “Salt in the Wound” doesn’t succeed simply because fans in the know will enjoy the collaboration; it succeeds because it’s sharp and well constructed. The trio pile imagery upon imagery, matching the chorus’s lament about a lover’s poor behavior, a series of “taking” like handkerchiefs coming out of a magician’s sleeve. The behavior prompts a memorable moment: “Trick after trick, I make the magic / And you unrelentingly ask for the secret.” It’s a challenging emotional moment tied to language that sticks.
All six songs are equally effective. “Me & My Dog,” the most Bridgers-sounding song on the album, delivers a complex look at the rise and fall of a relationship, tying the whole arc to insecurity and hurt. The coffeehouse-if-it-weren’t-so-cool song builds to a harmony on a strange line. At the climax, the singers announce, “I wanna be emaciated,” with just enough hitch that on first listen we might expect that last word to be “amazed” or anything positive given the beautiful tone. The impact on the line devastates not just because of its oddity or its connection psychological issues but because of its callback to the beginning of the track, where Bridgers sang, “We had a great day / Even though we forgot to eat.” An empty stomach now symbolizes both the emotional pain of the present as well as the brief joy of the past.
That sort of craft fills the album. In the Baker-led “Stay Down”, she blends religious imagery with video game references. When everything burns out, she finds life to be a “half-life” and a “fallout”, allusions that subtly look back at the lover who looked at his screen instead of her, as well as her feelings of disconnect from her own body. If she’s removed from the physical like someone playing a video game, she’s removed from the spiritual in her fight with God, to the point that she threatens to turn a baptism into a suicidal drowning. The title phrase that ends the song refers not only to being underwater, but to remaining sad and to being a boxer on the canvas, tying up the opening imagery of the song. The formal precision of the track is hard to overstate, but the group’s performance prevents it from being a dry exercise. The emotional potency comes through the structure and wordplay without flaunting it.
The boygenius EP marks a stunning release from three singular artists. Hearing them integrate their particular gifts would be worth a listen alone, but the performances are so remarkable that the disc’s background becomes trivial. The trio have a short tour planned, and then may or may not ever record again. That each are producing such stellar music on their own softens the disappointment of that news, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that something special happens when they get together.