In 2018, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker were three artists just getting started. Dacus and Baker had out two albums each: Dacus’ “No Burden” (2016) and “Historian” (2018) and Baker’s “Sprained Ankle” (2015) and “Turn Out the Lights” (2017), and Bridgers had released her debut “Stranger in the Alps” (2017) the year before. All are incredible singers and songwriters in their own right, but when they came together and released a self-titled EP under the name “boygenius,” their true magic was realized. In their solo work, their lyrics hit on similar themes — one might say they’re all the ‘yearning’ type — but they all have individualized sounds and styles, which makes their collective music work so well.
As “boygenius” (2018) was a hit, it’s not surprising that when they all went back to their solo projects, they made even better albums — “Punisher” (2020) for Bridgers, “Home Video” (2021) for Dacus and “Little Oblivions” (2021) for Baker.
Five years after “boygenius,” they’ve done it again. They released “the record” (2023) on March 31, and it is nothing short of masterful. If the EP was experimental, a trial after the trio encountered each other on the 2010s indie-rock circuit, the album is established. Each of the three of them has honed their voices, their sounds and their lyrics in the past five years, and they bring them together on “the record.”
The name “boygenius” is a nod to the way female artists are treated differently. Bridgers told Vogue in a 2018 interview, “Men are taught to be entitled to space and that their ideas should be heard because they’re great ideas and women are taught the opposite … so a ‘boygenius’ is someone who their whole life has been told that their ideas are genius.” The album cover of “boygenius” is stylized after fellow supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut album cover, and they again play with the role of gender on “the record.” Their announcement of its release was accompanied by a recreation of Nirvana’s Rolling Stone cover from 1994.
A highly anticipated project like this one sometimes runs the risk of being a disappointment when it finally comes out, but not this one. Rolling Stone titled their review: “The Debut Album From Boygenius Is Even Better Than Everyone Had Hoped,” which about sums it up. They begin with “Without You Without Them,” an a capella mix of the three voices that instantly gives you the feeling that you’re in for something good. “I want to hear your story / And be a part of it / Thank your father before you / His mother before him” they sing, ruminating on where we come from and who shapes our stories. This first track evokes similar feelings to the ones Lana Del Rey explores on the first track of her new album “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” (2023).
The album next goes to “$20,” “Emily I’m Sorry” and “True Blue,” the first pre-released singles — which were also the soundtrack to “the film,” a kind of three-song music video directed by Kristen Stewart, a wild ride that is impossible to sum up and is really just worth watching. Some of the tracks on the album feel like truly collaborative efforts, but these three are identifiable: “$20” is Baker, “Emily I’m Sorry” is Bridgers and “True Blue” is Dacus.
Some of the best parts of the album are the moments when you can hear specific bits of each of them as individual artists in the songs. The screaming at the end of “$20” is like Bridgers’ screaming at the end of her song “I Know the End” (2020). “Satanist” features a head-banging guitar riff à la Dacus’ song “VBS” (2021) and the lyric “I just wanna know who broke your nose / Figure out where they live / So I can kick their teeth in” in “Revolution 0” evokes her lyrics “I would kill him / If you let me / I would kill him / Quick and easy” from Dacus’ “Thumbs” (2021). The jump into electric guitar at the start of “Satanist” is so clearly like the crescendos in Baker’s “Hardline” (2021).
Perhaps this is where the beauty of the supergroup truly lies. Anyone can listen to “the record” and enjoy it, but for fans of the trio’s individual music, it’s a special treat to get to find them in these songs. And Bridgers, Dacus and Baker have a relationship that transcends being musical collaborators. With the release of “Not Strong Enough,” the album’s fourth early single, came a music video of the trio just … hanging out. At an amusement park, a museum, a beach, they’re joyful, silly, affectionate and, most prominently, candid. Frankly, it’s adorable, but their friendship also holds meaning in their music, like they all understand each other not just as artists but as people.
“Cool About It” takes listeners on the journey of yearning these artists consistently deliver so well. “Ask you easy questions about work and school / I’m trying to be cool about it / Feelin’ like an absolute fool about it,” Baker begins the song, before the three of them sing the bridge and chorus together, “And now I have to act like I can’t read your mind / I ask you how you’re doing and I let you lie / But we don’t have to talk about it,” and what just might be the best lyric on the album: “I can walk you home and practice method acting / I’ll pretend bein’ with you doesn’t feel like drowning.”
The album ends on a perfectly heartbreaking note with “Letter to an Old Poet,” which picks up where “Me & My Dog” from “boygenius” left off. The song — and album — ends with a proclamation: “I wanna be happy / I’m ready to walk into my room without lookin’ for you / … / I can’t feel it yet / But I am waiting.”