When I asked Interscope Records to send me the liner notes for Boygenius’ first full-length album, The Record, I was perplexed at first to find that the lyrics were typed in an array of irritatingly bright colors. Squinting my way through the pages, though, I began to realize it was a code for each of the band’s three allied songwriters: Lucy Dacus’ words seemed to be in orange, Phoebe Bridgers’ in violet, and Julien Baker’s in green. Sometimes a song would be all one color, but others would change from verse to verse, line to line, in mid-sentence, or just for a couple of words.
Then, reading along while listening to the album’s dozen songs, I noticed the primary writer of any given section wasn’t necessarily singing lead, as they consistently did on Boygenius’ 2018 self-titled debut EP. For example, on “Not Strong Enough,” the latest and catchiest of the singles that the indie supergroup released ahead of the album, Baker seems to be mostly singing Bridgers’ words in the second verse, the one that refers to “drag racing through the canyon/ singing ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ ” Which, come to think of it, does sound totally like Bridgers, the group’s only native Californian and the one most prone to dropping throwback rock references.
All of which illustrates how far Boygenius has come from its start. Their 2018 debut EP was the product of three mutually admiring soloists meeting for a few days in a studio, the longest time they’d ever spent together in person. (The band name was a half-sarcastic and half-aspirational declaration of parity with all the male musicians they’d met who confidently faked their way to brilliance.) Five years later—a half-decade of visits, text messages, and shared books and secrets and mutual crushes—this clutch of queer women in their mid-late 20s has become a seemingly indivisible power trio. On much of The Record, they’ve intertwined their writing voices, singing voices, and sonic ambitions to the point that Boygenius has a stylistic range all its own. Side project no more, it feels like a full-fledged band.
That’s all been nurtured by the process of The Record’s creation. Early in the pandemic, in June of 2020, the three women began exchanging ideas and demos on a shared Google Drive folder Baker named “dare I say it?” In the spring and summer of 2021, they met for covert songwriting retreats. Finally, in January of 2022, they spent nearly all month working long days at Shangri-La studio in Malibu (former haunt of Bob Dylan and the Band, now owned by Rick Rubin) together with co-producer Catherine Marks as well as guest contributors such as Jay Som (Melina Duterte) and Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin.
As seen in the wall-sized whiteboard notes visible in some of Marks’ Instagram posts from the studio, even the songs here that seem most like individual creations have been given a complete workover by the ensemble. Lyrics were workshopped and edited, while opportunities were found to interweave the threesome’s voices not only harmonically but in counterpoint, and occasionally (as on “$20”) in round-like part-singing. Gentle songs were provided with sudden surges of density and volume, with over-the-top, howling backup vocals that recall the Pixies, or with Beatles-esque distorted tape effects. Heavier “sick riffs,” as Baker likes to say, might be subjected to destabilizing electronics or sweetening strings.
This intensified group identity didn’t grow solely out of their personal affinity. It’s also due to how much their lives have changed since the first Boygenius release. Mounting fanbases and critical acclaim have meant concomitant losses of privacy and peace. That applies to Baker and Dacus but especially to Bridgers, who’s verged on crossing over into mainstream stardom: She’s appeared on Saturday Night Live, had multiple Grammy nominations (including Best New Artist), and guested on tracks by the likes of SZA and Taylor Swift—for whom she’s opening on a dozen “Eras Tour” stadium dates in May.
That scale of attention can be unsettling enough on its own, but it’s been accompanied by pressures that are much less positive—from fans harrassing Bridgers on her way to her father’s funeral earlier this year to tabloid and social media gossip about her relationships, particularly her reported engagement and then split with Irish actor Paul Mescal. (Even I can’t resist mentioning that the track “Revolution 0” originally had another Beatles-referencing title: “Paul Is Dead.”)
So Boygenius in 2023 is a different sort of refuge than it was before. The three artists’ relationship has also become a site for undertaking, as Baker has put it, “a learning process to know the difference between being scrutinized and being seen.” It’s a concern that surfaces one way or another on nearly every song. The album may not always pack the emotional force, track by track, of each of these artists’ solo works, with their more singular and focused sensibilities. But cumulatively, in both sound and lyric, it conveys a distinct idea of the band as a kind of mutual aid society that enables its members to risk failures and gain pleasures they might not chance on their own.
In particular, joining forces seems to provide these artists who have often been pigeonholed as makers of “sad girl” music with the inspiration and security to embrace another traditional function of the work of art: imagining some possibility of happiness. The closing Bridgers-led track “Letter to an Old Poet,” for instance, begins with some of her usual ambivalent score-settling with some reprehensible ex, but it then makes a shift: It calls back to her Boygenius EP highlight track “Me and My Dog,” and revises its abject line “I want to be emaciated” to a tentative assertion that “I want to be happy … I can’t feel it yet, but I am waiting” (lines that were Dacus’ suggestions).
How a friendship of equals might warrant such hopes, in the face of life’s brutalities and disappointments, is the explicit subject of many of these songs. As Baker sings on the album’s penultimate track, it permits these young people with troubled pasts to “sound out the foreign character” of less fatalistic visions—“an incantation like an anti-curse/ or even a blessing.”
The theme is especially pronounced on the songs led by Dacus. On the opener, a charmingly antiquated, parlor-harmony-style piece called “Without You Without Them,” she has the trio singing to one another, and perhaps the listener, too, “I want you to hear my story and be a part of it.” She’s even more upfront on later track “We’re in Love.” Out of a straightforward declaration of affection for (it feels likely) her friends and bandmates, it moves into anxieties about mental illness, and then it questions how the group might locate each other again in a subsequent life: “I’ll be the boy with the pink carnation pinned to my lapel/ Who looks like hell and asks for help./ And if you do, I’ll know it’s you.” (The carnation there is pink because Bridgers insisted on it as a nod to both the Marty Robbins song and the fact that her biggest influence, the late Elliott Smith, was pressured into removing a pink carnation from the lapel of his 1998 Oscars performance outfit.)
You have to love the Boygeniuses’ lovefests when you read their whip-smart interviews or view the totally giddy hangout video for “Not Strong Enough.” Not to mention for their galvanizing and sustaining effects for countless queer and feminist fans. But artistically, it could threaten to become insular and cloying. Thankfully, these three artists are also bound by their compulsive attention to contradiction and imperfection. Even that footage of them cavorting at amusement parks and museums is underscored, and in a sense undermined, by the song’s deeply self-doubting lyrics.
Likewise, in “Satanist,” they taunt one another with scenarios of how far wrong they’d have to veer before they gave up on one another: What if I became a devil worshipper, or a hypocritical activist, or an out-and-out nihilist? Would you still love me then? And in “Leonard Cohen,” Dacus recounts a half-endearing, half-aggravating anecdote about Bridgers causing an hourlong delay on a road trip, then juxtaposes it with the eternal line from Cohen’s 1992 classic “Anthem,” “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” (In a strange coincidence, it’s not even the first time that a leading singer-songwriter has evoked that line this month.) Dacus winkingly sends up the late icon—“I am not an old man having an existential crisis/ at a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry”—before going in for the emotional kill: “But I agree./ I never thought you’d happen to me.” Here, their friendship is simultaneously the crack and the light.
For some listeners, mind you, that may not be enough to redeem all the self-consciousness. Others may simply strongly prefer one Boy to another. Signs of an anti-Bridgers backlash abound—predictably enough, but not everyone’s reasons are necessarily kneejerk contrarianism. I’ve noticed that her biggest partisans tend to be lyrics-first people like myself, compelled by the provocations, poetic compression, and lateral thinking of her very 1990s-indie-styled set pieces. Those who are primarily drawn to vocal tone and melody, however, may sincerely find her repetitive and thin.
They might prefer the folkier, more 1970s singer-songwriter virtues of Dacus, who builds up initially simple narratives line by line until they’re devastatingly complex, replete with literary allusions: In “Anti-Curse,” for example, she injects Joan Didion’s 1967 “Goodbye to All That” essay line “Was anyone ever so young?” into Baker’s story about swimming out too far at high tide.
Others might find Dacus’ style too much of a slow burn, and look to the punk- and emo-bred Baker to cut harder and faster to the feelings. By contrast, I’ll admit that of the three, I was slowest to come around to Baker’s starker confessionalism, until her most recent album.
Their mix of strengths here also hazards a mingling of those possible perceived weaknesses. And if it extended into another album, the group’s “we love us” sentiments, however nuanced, may indeed wear thin. But on this first complete work, they feel novel and earned, leaving me more than willing to fly Boygenius’ orange, violet, and green flag from the highest ramparts.