album review

Boygenius Is Here to Blunt Whatever Life Throws Our Way

Photo: boygenius

What steadies you when you’re spiraling? Who talks you out of your worst ideas and goads you toward your best ones? Boygenius is a rock band and a writers’ workshop and a place of peace for Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, singer-songwriters whose music hides devastating emotional candor behind deceptively enticing hooks. The trio met while gigging in the mid-2010s and then kept in touch, getting along swimmingly because they were circling some of the same concepts from different approaches. Bridgers’s 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, situated her in the Elliott Smith school of double-tracked vocals and harrowing honesty. A month later, Baker’s sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, balanced moonlit soul-searching and elegant, understated electric-guitar lines. The following March, Dacus’s Historian paired observations about emotional dependencies and looming crises of faith with ornate rock grooves.

Boygenius further gelled while the three recorded a self-titled EP over four days in 2018, pooling their gifts on songs like “Salt in the Wound,” on which Baker and Bridgers counterbalance Dacus’s restrained, lilting vocal delivery, and “Me and My Dog,” a panic-attack thought bubble that showcases Bridgers’s penchant for gripping diaristic details while coaxing out a moment of noisy release. The heaviness of the songwriting sits in stark contrast to the playfulness of the musicians. The boygenius NPR Tiny Desk performance is a clinic in this dynamic: They crack jokes to break up the mood, and when they stop laughing, it’s to fire an arrow straight into your chest. At Brooklyn Steel in 2018, a rendition of “Salt in the Wound” that ended with Bridgers and Dacus lying on the ground kicking their feet up in glee during a solo from Baker quickly gave way to a stately version of boygenius EP closer “Ketchum, ID,” a meditation on the disorienting swing from homesickness to listlessness.

After the EP and subsequent tour, the members took what they learned back to their respective solo careers. Bridgers’s Punisher beefed up the arrangements, adding slow-boiling rockers to the usual palette of piercing folk songs, earning four Grammy nominations, and initiating a fast-paced year in which she made guest appearances on albums by Kid Cudi and the Killers. Baker’s Little Oblivions freed the guitar hero “Salt in the Wound” had brought out. Dacus’s Home Video dug deeper and struck a smoother balance between loud and quiet moments. As questions about the future of boygenius persisted, the trio quietly stockpiled songs for a full-length, workshopping ideas in group texts and on writing retreats. Titling their debut album the record acknowledges the years of pining for and inching toward the finished product while introducing a faint air of levity to a collection of songs about identifying lifelines in troubling times.

The new songs have found a fix for the loneliness the EP left us with: boygenius finds strength in boygenius. The record pushes each artist further in the direction they were heading, teasing out some of the most catchy and self-assured art from their individual repertoires and blunting the hopelessness in songs about self-destructive urges, breakups, and deaths. Bridgers’s last album documented the fight to stay afloat while things are going badly with people you care about, Dacus’s touched on growing in a different direction than you or anyone who raised you might have expected you to, and Baker’s discussed observing and redirecting troubling trajectories. Here, the group chimes in during moments of darkness to offer rejuvenating camaraderie, celebrating the indelible bonds they’ve formed in the shadow of turbulence.

The record is everyone’s major-label debut — Baker and Dacus have always worked with Matador, while Bridgers’s stuff lives on Dead Oceans — and the Interscope release benefits from each artist having had a few album and touring cycles to refine and restructure their approach to making records. “$20” proves that the soaring Little Oblivions single “Faith Healer” was no fluke, pairing driving riffs with images of desperation and destruction: “Run out of gas, out of time, out of money / You’re doing what you can, just makin’ it run.” What could be a discouraging moment turns on a dime into a sing-along as Bridgers and Dacus swoop in over and underneath Baker’s vocal, ending a song about things breaking down with a roaring round about bumming quick cash off a friend. Dacus’s smoky, somber “True Blue” sweetens around the chorus when the band joins her in singing, “It feels good to be known so well,” bookending the frustration in the verses with a soothing contentment in having a support system for times like these. “Not Strong Enough” weaves effortlessly between one of Bridgers’s finest depictions of the inertia of depression — “Black hole opened in the kitchen / Every clock’s a different time / It would only take the energy to fix it” — a hook from Baker that channels ’90s alt-rock, and a refrain from Lucy (“Always an angel, never a god”) that coyly drops the iconography of faith into a song where three queer women turn the story of an old Sheryl Crow hit inside out.

The record understands its place in rock history as keenly as it grasps the points of interest in everyone’s back catalogue. The salt Baker tastes during a brush with death at the beach in “Anti-Curse” calls back to her EP highlight; the opener “Without You Without Them” offers a rejoinder to the uprooted feeling at the end of “Ketchum, ID,” an acknowledgement that this group is home. The vocal melodies in the verses of “Cool About It” pull from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” “Revolution 0” references the Beatles, and “Leonard Cohen” paraphrases the late singer-songwriter’s “Anthem” while recounting a trip on which Bridgers accidentally drove the band an hour in the wrong direction after missing their highway exit because they were singing the praises of Iron & Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger.”

Boygenius Is Here to Blunt Whatever Life Throws Our Way