The Legend of boygenius Evolves on the record

In a surprise to no one, good things happen when three generational talents join forces to make an indie-rock album.

Music Reviews Boygenius
The Legend of boygenius Evolves on the record

When it comes to follow-ups, the pressure is always on. Ask any director, showrunner or band whose debut was a hit.

The first EP from boygenius—the supergroup composed of three of the greatest millennial rock singers: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus—was written, recorded and released all in 2018. At the time, each artist was sufficiently buzzy, and when they first surprise-mailed press photos to journalists teasing their formation, it felt too good to be true. As both the artists as individuals and their work as a unit have collected more fans, and streams, with every passing year, album No. 2 was almost surely an intimidating prospect.

But boygenius took a slightly different, and perhaps less formidable, route on the follow-up to their self-titled debut: Rather than start with a completely blank page, they formed something of a sequel. the record isn’t just their second (and first full-length) project as a group—it’s directly in conversation with the EP. And it’s a riveting discussion.

The EP felt raw in an almost accidental way, like we were peeking into a quiet evening among friends through a door left ajar. the record travels to a similar space emotionally, but everything about it feels more curated: the tracklist, the sonic mood, and the sharing of the mic (and pen—all three artists are credited as songwriters on every song). Boygenius’ collaboration is harmonious in more ways than one, and the record shows they belong among the ranks of the greatest American supergroups.

The most obvious bridge between the band’s two projects stretches from boygenius standout “Me & My Dog” to the record closer “Letter To An Old Poet.” “Letter” borrows its melody from “Dog” and replies to its lyrics in a most devastating fashion: “I want to be happy, I’m ready to walk into my room without looking for you / I’ll go up the top of our building and remember my dog when I see the full moon.”

This reprise isn’t the only clever choice on the record. Bridgers’ folk roots emerge on the charming banjo ditty “Cool About It,” which encapsulates the lightheaded feeling of a crush, or maybe a friendship between empaths. It rolls right into the best song on the album, “Not Strong Enough,” which epitomizes late-20s neuroses (“I don’t know why I am the way I am”) and tributes The Cure in both style and a “Boys Don’t Cry” shoutout.

“Revolution O,” however, sounds more Justin Vernon than Robert Smith, and “Leonard Cohen,” channels the melancholia of both its namesake and Bridgers’ professed hero Elliott Smith. There’s another more sly artist dedication on “We’re In Love” in the form of the line “I could go on and on and on,” straight from Taylor Swift’s “This Love.”

But for every bar of lo-fi folk or pop music on the record, there’s a rock ’n’ roll outburst to match. In the fashion of Bridgers’ “I Know The End” (and a seemingly endless stream of indie rock songs since then), both “$20” and “Satanist” feature guttural screams. “Anti-Curse” is another great loud moment. Baker initially takes the lead, but then a little glimpse of each artist comes into focus: Dacus’ trembling guitars, Bridgers’ cool soprano against the backdrop, and Baker’s warm-blooded words.

One of the greatest feats of boygenius isn’t even on the record. Since the release of the EP, each artist has released some of their best work to date: Bridgers’ Punisher, Baker’s Little Oblivions and Dacus’ Home Video. The fact that they have the emotional capacity and skill to be so prolific is miraculous on its own.

And while the record delivers on the promise of those talents united—exceptional rock music by three sad-song experts—it doesn’t always sound more timeless than topical. But when it does thrive at the former, the record is exploring more rudimentary feelings rather than emotional coalescence, like in the Dacus-helmed “True Blue,” which confesses, “it feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself,” or “We’re In Love,” which points to the clearest sign that a relationship is the real thing: “You could absolutely break my heart / That’s how I know that we’re in love.”

It’s lines like those that will last. There are few artists more capable of writing lyrics that elude space and time than the women of boygenius, and even when it falters, the record is already poised to endure.

All signs point to boygenius’ popularity skyrocketing with this release (though perhaps it has already—see a recent Rolling Stone cover), and the band seems to know that it’s not just because sad songs are trendy right now. Their three voices together are magic, they know this, and best of all, they seem to just really enjoy making music together as much as we enjoy listening to it.

For proof of that affection, look no further than “Without You Without Them,” what can only be described as an a cappella friendship hymn: “I want you to hear my story and be a part of it,” they promise. Baker, Bridgers and Dacus are nothing if not effective communicators, but it’s clear the most important dialogue is between each other.

Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop-culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s an editor and freelance writer. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.

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