‘Masterclass’: This is a super album from an indie supergroup

More than the sum of its parts: boygenius’ debut album.

boygenius, The Record

In 2018, the supergroup boygenius released its self-titled debut EP. In six songs, the trio – made up of American indie singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus – blended all their idiosyncrasies to create a sound that was at once recognisable as the sum of its parts, and much more than that. Then nothing for five long years, in which time all three musicians’ careers blossomed. For a while, it seemed like maybe boygenius was just a brief, brilliant flash in the pan.

But thank goodness the boys, as they lovingly call themselves, are back in town. In January, the group dropped three new tracks out of seemingly nowhere: $20, True Blue and Emily, I’m Sorry, positioned up front in a row here, provided a good indication of the album’s sonic mix, from robust, arena-ready rock to haunting, introspective folk.

The group’s first full-length is a masterclass in clever, economical songwriting, capitalising on the best aspects of each songwriter’s craft – Baker’s understated literary bent, Bridgers’ strange symbolism, Dacus’ meticulous worldbuilding – to create a unified approach.

Some tracks are easy to pinpoint to one of the three – the wispy Emily, I’m Sorry could be a straight-up Bridgers song, We’re In Love taps Dacus’ emotional vein and Anti-Curse is classic Baker – but it’s the ping-ponging of vocals, and the devastatingly gorgeous harmonising (best captured on a cappella opener Without You Without Them), that makes it a true group affair. The irreverent Satanist reflects both Baker and Dacus’ religious upbringings, flipping the script in an act of solidarity and rebellion.

Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are boygenius.Credit:Shervin Lainez

All three writers love a reference, and The Record is stacked with them, from nodding to The Cure on the album’s best track, the rousing, folk-inflected rock song Not Strong Enough, to the Dacus-led Leonard Cohen. The latter clocks in under two minutes and includes the incredible lyrics “Leonard Cohen once said there’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in / And I am not an old man having an existential crisis in a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry / But I agree.”

It’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek millennial attitude that peppers the album – the ability to simultaneously hold something or someone in high regard while also noting its inherent absurdity. The song has a charming backstory: it’s about Bridgers being so distracted by playing her bandmates an Iron and Wine song on a road trip that she took a wrong turn. That friendship is at the root of everything, and is what holds this album together.

The album lands at a fascinating time in each artist’s career, as the specific brand of indie pop and rock peddled by all three, influenced equally by classic singer-songwriters and mid-’00s emo, finds a new generation of fans. The increasing mainstream appeal of this music doesn’t dilute its power – if anything, it’s been a surprise and a pleasure to see the rich inner lives of women artists elevated to the same status as their male contemporaries.

This album finely walks the line between typical pop structures and more esoteric writing inspired by folk and Americana, creating an accessible yet still complex blend. The arrangements here are stunning – Revolution 0 builds from simple voice and acoustic guitar to a soaring, string-drenched bed of sound, each member’s vocals heaping atop one another to create a symphony of moving parts. Voices are treated like an instrument, too.

Bakers, Bridgers and Dacus all trade in stark emotional honesty in their individual work, but there’s an undeniable clarity in their work together. As they sing on True Blue, “It feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself.”

– Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

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