boygenius have been called lots of names over the past few weeks, all of them competing for how to describe the greatness of this band best: “Indie-Supergroup” (most common; pretty close to an oxymoron, if you ask me), “world’s most exciting indie-band” (RollingStone) or “the Avengers” (by Paramore’s Hayley Williams) – you get the idea. Whatever you choose, the tenor stays the same: boygenius are a phenomenon.
For me, they are the band I would have needed as a teenager: bold, vulnerable, approachable, rebellious, and always uplifting each other, in their music as well as in their friendship. There would be a lot to say about how significant this group already is, how they represent girls, women, and queers and give them hope – how their music is the kind of music that can make you survive. The pure fact that boygenius, three queer women, are getting the attention they so truly deserve is a silver lining for the music industry and for a lot of marginalized people. But that’s it. I won’t talk more about this, because after all this group is not famous for being women or queer, but for being very capable songwriters and musicians. So, let’s dive into this album.
A Door In Time
the record has a certain kind of storytelling structure: The first song Without You Without Them recalls the sound of old country-folk legends such as the Carter Family, displaying the roots of American country-folk tradition and, hence, the roots of boygenius. The sound quality of this song is, compared to the rest of the album, significantly less brilliant and differentiated, which makes the voices of the three singers blend together in almost unity, leading to a certain retro vibe. You might see them with a sepia-filter before your inner eye, all three of them singing into one mic in absolute harmony.
The lyrics of Without You Without Them seem to open the door to a safe space where every thought and every feeling is valid.
“Give me everything you’ve got
I’ll take what I can get
I want to hear your story
And be a part of it”
Following this opening call, we hear three songs that function as a kind of exposition: While the songs after this part were created in co-writing, each member wrote one of these three “exposition” songs on their own. The main songwriter is also the one leading the song, which is creating space for each of their individual styles.
$20, written and led by Julien Baker, comes first. The punk-rock-like guitar riff breaks the retro-folk atmosphere of Without You Without Them and might get you in the mood to burn your neighbour’s car (the band won’t assume liability in this case). The second song, Emily, I’m Sorry, was written by Phoebe Bridgers and is in fact the song that initiated the reunion of boygenius after their 2018 self-titled EP. In June 2020, just one week after the release of her sophomore album Punisher, Phoebe sent the demo for Emily, I’m Sorry into their group chat, asking “can we be a band again?”. In its overall subdued design, featuring quite reduced instrumentals, this song is naturally the one that has Phoebe Bridgers’ handwriting all over it, showing off her unique abilities as a lyricist as well as in finding the most memorable melancholic melodies.
The third song in this “exposition” part is True Blue, written and led by Lucy Dacus. This ode to friendship and unconditional, forgiving love (“true blue” stands for “extremely loyal”) feels like the heart of the record, best to be understood through the following passage:
“But it feels good to be known so well
I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself
I remember who I am when I’m with you
Your love is tough, your love is tried and true-blue”
The music videos for these three songs were directed by Kristen Stewart and are best to be watched all together in the 15 minutes music video the film.
After we got to know all band members in the “exposition”, we are entering the part of the album for which the songs were all crafted in teamwork. Naturally, those songs reflect the relationship of the band members and their shared experiences more than the previous ones. If we look at the song Leonard Cohen for example, it was inspired by a situation the band experienced while driving in Phoebe Bridgers’ car on the interstate: While Phoebe insisted to show a song to Lucy and Julien, she didn’t realise she was driving in the wrong direction for the whole ten-minute duration of the song, because her friends didn’t tell her to turn around.
“On the on-ramp, you said
‘If you love me, you will listen to this song’
And I could tell that you were serious
So I didn’t tell you you were driving the wrong way”
Although Leonard Cohen only lasts 01:42 minutes, for me it is one of the peak song-writing moments of this album. Especially the following passage illustrates boygenius’ special ability to be earnest in one line and gently humorous in the next.
“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
At a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry
But I agree”
However, Leonard Cohen is by far not the only one to be referenced on the record. From fellow musicians such as Taylor Swift and Paul Simon on to writers like Joan Didion: boygenius’ lyrics are a treasure box for everyone who can appreciate some lore. For their fans of the first hour, there are even some self-references hidden in the tracks Anti-Curse and Letter To An Old Poet, picking up songs from their self-titled debut EP.
boygenius don’t even hesitate to make bible references – something that you’ll see in a whole other light knowing that Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus grew up in very religious environments in the Southern States. Intentionally or not, the following passage from the song Satanist could be taken as a hint to recent developments in the more conservative American states where even in 2023 new laws are passed, taking freedom and safety from women, queers, and especially trans people – one of those laws very recently in Julien Baker’s home state Tennessee.
“Solomon had a point when he wrote ‘Ecclesiastes’
If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy
If the void becomes a bore, we’ll treat ourselves to some self-belief”
Beacons Of Hope, Artists In The First Place
the record is a diary of the friendship of three women, full of conversation and the will to understand and support each other. But in the way, it adds a new perspective to the predominantly white, heterosexual, male indie-rock genre, it might also be a milestone – or as writer Lexi McMenamin from them magazine puts it: “the record asks important questions about faith, death, trust, and relationships, but for once, they come from minds that believe that women and trans and queer people and people of color are people”. But let’s not force boygenius in an activist position they might not want to be in. Just listen to them and what they have to say and appreciate them as artists in the first place.
boygenius’ the record is out now via Interscope Records.