Building on the momentum of their recent solo forays, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, aka Boygenius, release their debut LP, The Record, a stellar follow-up to 2018’s self-titled EP. Throughout the sequence, the trio prioritize each member’s songwriting and vocal stylistics while engaging in supportive collaborations. The result is a set brimming with hooks, harmonies, and lyrics that address existential crises, relational dynamics, and the paradoxes of love.
“$20” shows Baker mining the rollicking approaches employed on 2021’s Little Oblivions. Lyrically, she pitches a blend of irreverence, nostalgia, and highbrow slackerism (“In another life we were arsonists”), demonstrating a continued movement away from the more tortured persona of her earlier work. Panned harmonies and backup vocals from Bridgers and Dacus are sublimely rendered. As the song nears closure, the three voices grow more interactive, the trio reveling in tonal complements and contrasts. The soundscape as a whole swells toward a noisy crescendo, including a metal-inflected scream.
With “Emily I’m Sorry”, Bridgers, like recently deceased poet Charles Simic, displays a knack for linear narrative textured by elements of surrealism. “She’s asleep in the backseat / But she’s waking up inside a dream / Full of screeching tires and fire,” she offers, delineating a character who could be a childhood friend or a doppelganger figure with whom she shares some random karmic connection. Her phrasing both enrolls and displaces the listener, a signature used effectively throughout her career. The song’s melody is plaintive and sensual, reminiscent of tracks from 2020’s Punisher. Back-up vocals and harmonies are sparsely applied.
Of the three Boygenius members, Dacus has consistently exhibited the most defined penchant for detailed portraiture, as evidenced by the confidently performed “True Blue”. “Now you’re moving in / breaking a sweat on your upper lip / And getting pissed about humidity,” she observes, crafting The Record‘s most vivid mise en scène. While her voice is placed high in the mix and takes center stage, as expected, the track is significantly enriched by a shuffling drum part and ambient guitar accents.
“Not Strong Enough” is one of The Record’s high points, benefiting from a more fully synergetic MO that recalls 2016’s case/lang/veirs, the criminally underrated one-off (at least so far) from Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs. Vocals are seamlessly merged and slightly offset, backed by acoustic guitars and a bouncy drum part. Lyrically the song underscores how difficult it can be to uninhibitedly engage in a relationship, to backburner one’s defense mechanisms, and to cease indulging in counterproductive self-talk.
A few tunes fall short of The Record’s otherwise high bar. Built around a riff that conjures Everclear’s post-grunge hit “Santa Monica”, the tongue-in-cheek “Satanist” operates as a palate cleanser of sorts, playing with the notion of the rebel or iconoclast while bordering on cliché (“Will you be an anarchist with me? / Sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie”). “We’re in Love”, too, inches toward sentimentality (“Will you still love me / If it turns out I’m insane?”) but also provides an added dose of vulnerability and textbook confessionalism (“Put down the knife we’re not swapping blood”). “Anti-Curse” borrows melodically from “Souvenirs”, the third cut on the 2018 EP and possibly the most haunting track in the Boygenius oeuvre. That said, it neither reiterates the profound melancholy of its source nor fully embraces the buoyancy to which it aspires.
The Record’s flaws, however, never eclipse its ultimate triumphs. The succinct yet fascinating “Revolution 0” is quintessential Bridgers. The singer vacillates between affirmative and negative self-messaging (“I don’t wanna die / that’s a lie”), torn between what the Greeks dubbed the Eros and Thanatos energies. On “Leonard Cohen”, Dacus constructs a similarly concise yet intriguing vignette, again illustrating her gift for precise imagery, particularly when capturing relational idiosyncrasies. The song moves between Cohen references, including his “there is a crack in everything” mantra and thoughts regarding a person with whom she shared various initiations. In this way, Dacus elegizes a friend who is or was by turns brilliant and reckless, abundantly alive and dangerously destructive.
The hyper-catchy “Cool About It” draws inspiration from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and “The Boxer”. Vocals are crystalline and reverb-dashed, undergirded by a folkish guitar and laid-back banjo part. Lyrics spotlight the habitual dishonesties that eventually corrode a relationship (“I ask you how you’re doing / And I let you lie”) and the lengths to which we’ll often go in an attempt to restore some semblance of stability (“Once I took your medication to know what it’s like”). The final track, “Letter to an Old Poet”, shows Bridgers culling insight from a past affair with an older writer, an arrangement replete with palpable tensions, toxic power dynamics, and repressed violence (Lisa Halliday’s 2018 novel Asymmetry immediately comes to mind). The song is a memorable tableau that aptly depicts the lingering impact of patriarchal structures.
Three of the more gifted artists currently working in popular music, Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus, strike a fertile balance between adhering to their respective styles and collaborating so that The Record unfurls as a bona fide group effort. Democratically curated and effusing a palpable enthusiasm, the project stands as a testimony to the power of aesthetic commonality, enduring friendship, and the magic of teamwork, something we could use more of these days.