Review Summary: Always an angel, never a god
The most intriguing thing about the release of The Record
is the massive disconnect between the Boygenius trio’s meager previous output as a group and the tidal wave of hype which threatens to submerge the whole project. In a way, it makes sense - after all, the band’s constituent members are all prominent indie figures in their own right at this point, and (at least) one of them is basically a cultural icon, but it’s still hard to ignore the fact that, until now, there was only a little six-song EP from 2018 to put Boygenius on the map. And, while that release was a pretty great set of folk songs, it also wasn’t anything particularly exceptional, bogged down most obviously by the fact that a majority of the tunes felt like solo songs from one member or another, and not particularly high-grade ones at that. Still, the Boygenius
EP got a lot of press, buoyed by the three ladies’ already rising profiles on the scene. By the time of the release of The Record
, this has been amped up to the level of laudatory pieces about the group in Rolling Stone (ok boomer!) and “instant classic” reviews preceding album release in NME.
Of course, five years is a long time in the world of music. In that time, following the smashing pandemic-era success of Punisher
, Phoebe Bridgers has become, for good or ill, absolutely inescapable - I don’t have scientific proof of this, but it seems fair to say that the only person who has her beat in terms of wholly unnecessary song features is late 2000s-era T-Pain. Julien Baker might not be quite on that same level, but her name recognition has undoubtedly also skyrocketed, with now three great albums to her name. Lucy Dacus, at the time of the Boygenius
EP, was the black sheep, but even she has seemingly hit another level in terms of both critical and popular acclaim with 2021’s Home Video
. With all that said, you can see The Record
as a power move. The three bandmates have already taken the music world by storm, perhaps to an unprecedented degree for artists coming from the indie folk realm, and now they’re flaunting that ascendance for all to see.
In typical fashion for these musicians, there’s a sort of a winking and half self-deprecating aspect to the whole thing. Even naming the album The Record
fits into this, seemingly both a smirking acknowledgement that Boygenius has been getting a lot of hype without a single full-length under the moniker, and a joking suggestion that this is indeed “the record” of the moment which people will be talking about. The Crosby, Stills, & Nash-aping EP artwork is gone, replaced by multiple Beatles-evoking song titles (“Without You Without Them” and “Revolution 0”, for those keeping score at home) and a lovingly-snarky ode to Leonard Cohen (entitled, surprisingly enough, “Leonard Cohen”). Taking this a step further and probably reading far too much into everything, the three ladies seem to understand that they have a big platform and mean a great deal to their generation, but simultaneously refuse to take things too seriously, no matter how bleak these songs’ subject matter gets at times.
This playful ethos of friends being friends, expressing their emotions at an individual level but always also playing music full of connection and togetherness, goes a long way towards alleviating the flaws of The Record
. And yes, there are flaws. The aforementioned complaint regarding their EP crops up here once more, with a good number of the tunes feeling like solo tracks from one of the band members. This is particularly noticeable with dreamy folk songs like “Emily I’m Sorry” and “Revolution 0” in which Bridgers takes the lead vocally, producing results which feel easily includable on Punisher
. When those gentle numbers are contrasted with some of the unexpectedly rock-y songs here, like the gritty “$20” or “Satanist”, which is built around a riff which could’ve been featured in some distant pop-punk hit from the trio’s childhoods, it leads to a notable lack of cohesion. The overarching weakness seems to be that, while this is a set of songs being performed by talented musicians clearly having the time of their lives, it often feels like nothing more, simply a (great) set of songs rather than a coherent album statement.
The previous paragraph’s fleeting criticism is just that, though: fleeting. The Record
, when compared to Boygenius
, inevitably comes out much ahead, reflecting the singer-songwriters’ substantial growth as musicians in the intervening half-decade. In contrast to the EP’s notable dearth of top-tier material (minus the stunning “Ketchum, ID”), there’s a lot of excellent songs here: “True Blue” feels like a classic, vaguely shoegaze-adjacent and full of storytelling lyrics, with Dacus’ vocals shining, “Cool About It” is a stripped-down folk stunner, and “Satanist” has a nice crunch to it as the women muse light-heartedly, swaying from revolutionary rhetoric to Biblical references without missing a beat. “Anti-Curse” sees Baker contemplating a past experience of nearly drowning at the beach and proves energetic and compelling. Meanwhile, “Letter To An Old Poet” is a great finale which encapsulates the appeal of this whole project. Bridgers sings a melancholy tune touching on an abusive relationship with typically blunt lyrics - “you’re not special, you’re evil” being yet another example of a line which would simply be bad in the hands of a singer without her peculiar charisma. But the climax hits right, a gentle swell to the lines “I’ll go up to the top of our building, and remember my dog when I see the full moon”, in a callback to “Me & My Dog” from Boygenius’ inaugural effort. Then the trio almost-whisper out the album’s final lines - “I can’t feel it yet, but I’m waiting” -before a burst of volume as the album comes to a close, apparently snipped from a concert on the group’s previous joint tour, a particular moment all three women recall as a defining experience. For a set of singers best known for their depressive vibes (and those aren’t exactly in short supply here either), that’s the ultimate appeal of The Record
- an ode to friendship, to good memories, to the idea, maybe even the expectation, that things might just work out ok. It’s a manifestly imperfect album, but irresistible nonetheless. My answer to that evergreen question, “whatcha listenin’ to?” will be simple for a while: “I’m jammin’ The Record