boygenius bring The Rest to Madison Square Garden

Music Features Boygenius
boygenius bring The Rest to Madison Square Garden

“If you relate to this… I’m so sorry,” Phoebe Bridgers tells the packed crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, punctuating the comment with an earnest laugh. Moments later, she pours out the opening lyrics of “Letter To An Old Poet,” a song she says she was only emboldened to write after joining forces with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker and forming the indie supergroup boygenius. The sold-out arena sings along as Bridgers highlights the ins and outs of a toxic relationship, mirroring her delivery as the words “You made me feel like an equal, but I’m better than you” bounce against the walls of the stadium. It’s a peak moment in a night riddled with raw emotion and, despite her pre-song disclaimer, it’s clear from the impassioned singalong that each word resonates.

A week before their sold-out debut at the world’s most famous arena, boygenius—the band which started as a creative accident back in 2018—announced their second EP The Rest. The four-track collection follows the band’s first full-length, The Record, a pristine, earnestly written rock opus which saw the trio travel across the globe—leaving crowds of teary-eyed youth in their wake. On this cool October evening, under the roof of this storied Manhattan venue, the energy is no different. Security hands out tissues to fans pressed up against the front row barricade, pink carnations litter the stage halfway through the set, and Dacus, Baker and Bridgers take turns crying and sharing vulnerable diatribes between each song. From the moment they appear on stage, running out to cheers after their customary acapella rendition of album opener “Without You Without Them,” MSG is submerged in emotion. Standing in the auditorium, it’s impossible to not be pulled in by the undertow and, by the time the band uses its three voices to build a wall of sound at the bridge of “$20,” I’m floating along in spite of myself.

You see, boygenius has a way of not only using their voices but inciting their audience to use their own. Perhaps it’s how skilled they all are in the art of vulnerability, revealing they went to “throuples” therapy before their critically acclaimed debut dropped earlier this year—and how the experience led them to deeper creative harmony. Maybe it’s their comfort with nuanced sexuality, openly discussing their queerness without a need to fit perfectly into any boxes of expectation. My guess is it’s a combination of all of this but, above everything, it’s the quality of the songwriting. It’s the kind of writing that makes you feel like someone’s been watching and taking notes, somehow able to mirror the complex emotions you thought only you had experienced—howling them back in your direction suggesting you’re not alone. Take their bold single “No Strong Enough” as evidence. It teeters from a place of “please love me” before swinging back to “I’m not loveable,” and as it fills up MSG; hearing “I don’t know why I am the way I am / Not strong enough to be your man” right before the admission “I lied I am just lowering your expectations” feels like a punch in the gut. A quick scan of the massive room around me proves I’m not the only one who’s taken a hit.

The 25-song set list, a feat most bands with just one LP under their belts could only dream of, plays out flawlessly. In fact, the crowd pulsates with the same energetic response to the sharp and bouncy “Satanist” as they do to the stripped-back and heartbreaking “Cool About It.” Towards the end of their set, boygenius leave the stage for an assumed encore before magically appearing on a different platform at the opposite end of the auditorium, taking on a fresh position and the opportunity to perform four new songs from The Rest.

boygenius start with “Black Hole” which opens with Baker’s voice trill and steady against a sparse backdrop before a swirl of symphonic sound meets her. “Good day, good night, good talk, goodbye / It’s out of your hands, but have a safe flight,” Bridgers and Dacus join in at the refrain. It’s a pleasant extension to “The Record,” not only showcasing the group’s production prowess but proving there’s definitely more lyrical depth leftover from where their exacting debut came from. Next is “Afraid Of Heights” with Dacus shining a light on her staggering and candid lyricism, balancing the words “I don’t wanna live forever, but I don’t wanna die tonight” gently over guitar strings. As they play “Voyager,” Bridgers delicately sings “I used to believe no one could love you like I do / And I’m starting to think but it might be impossible not to” like she’s afraid that being too loud will break the notes underneath her. On “Powers,” Baker takes the steering wheel again, showing off the same bold playing and vocal dexterity she displays on “$20,” musing “I have never heard the tale of how I got my powers” definitively. Earlier in the set, she revealed that the power she’s referring to may be her voice.

“I took some time off from touring and some personal things in my life happened,” Baker tells the captivated audience halfway through the set. “When I first started to sing for this project, I couldn’t sing. It was psychological. At rehearsals, I was so quiet I couldn’t hit the notes. I can’t even really hit the notes 100% of the time,” she adds with a laugh. “But, I started singing louder,” Baker continues before adding a note to her bandmates. “You guys gave me my voice back.” At this point, the crowd howls back and her voice cracks. “I think that is what music is for,” she adds. “To hear your voice against another person’s.”

Voices are complex things. The term itself can refer to the octave you sing in, the unique way you write or even the way you annunciate particular words. Using your voice can mean speaking up for yourself and others, or it can point to fearlessly saying the last thing you want to say outloud. Voices are powerful things and, in the case of boygenius, they can bring together a collective of earnest, like-minded individuals tightly under the roof of an expansive arena all willing to put their voice against someone else’s.

Erica Campbell is a music journalist, host and former Features Editor of NME. Her stories have been featured in Spin, Glamour, Architectural Digest and more. She’s hosted on-camera interviews with Grammy and Academy award-winning artists, moderated industry panels for Spotify, shared her post-punk pundit skills with NPR, USA Today and SiriusXM, and has written liner notes for Vinyl Me Please, including the print booklet for the vinyl reissue of The Strokes’ Is This It. She lives in New York City with her dog Maddox and a collection of star-ornamented boots that would make David Bowie proud.

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