boygenius the record Polydor/Interscope
Back in January, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, the three members of the indie rock supergroup boygenius, appeared on the front cover of Rolling Stone to announce their debut album, the record. Their deadpan poses and pinstripe suits paid homage to a photoshoot in the same publication almost three decades earlier, featuring another lightning rod American three-piece: Nirvana.
The reference, of course, was not an incidental one, the inference being that boygenius are, as Nirvana were, one of the most significant bands of their time – even if the record is an album that alternately subverts, embraces and side-eyes the canon. Leonard Cohen, on a track named after the revered artist, for example, is described as “an old man writing horny poetry”. But two songs earlier, on Not Strong Enough, the band unashamedly deal in shimmering stadium rock, showing us that even as their eyebrows are wryly raised over the deification of guitar music’s “boy geniuses”, they can also play – and beat – them at their own game.
Just as Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic captured a pervasive mood with Nevermind – that is, the restless and destructive boredom of the American teenager in the early 90s – on the record, Baker, Bridgers and Dacus do the same for the 2020s. Together, they distil the particular blend of neuroticism, romance and irony that tends to infect the brains of their young, internet-addled fanbase, in a way that feels generationally definitive. Dacus self-describes as “a winter bitch” on True Blue, while Baker’s “half my mind/ I keep the other second guessing” line on Not Strong Enough is a pin-point description of how it feels to be a young person in such an anxiety ridden time.
As such, the record lives up to the expectations that have been placed on it since boygenius released their self-titled EP in 2018, and just as before, each band member brings her own unique sensibility to the table. Baker’s winsome vocal sparkles on Cool About It, the grounded dignity of Dacus’ alto makes We’re in Love the most affecting song on the album, while Bridgers drives it home with closer Letter to an Old Poet, stirringly interpolating the standout 2018 boygenius track Me and My Dog. This new song is a sort of sequel to the earlier one, wherein Bridgers denounces its once-exalted subject. “You made me feel an equal/ But I’m better than you and you should know that by now,” she sings over piano, backed by harmonies from Dacus and Baker, as the familiar refrain lurches back in.
Thematically, there is a focus on the personal and romantic that we expect from these three songwriters, but there’s also a special dimension that we don’t hear in their solo projects: their love for each other. This is most touchingly expressed on We’re in Love, on which Dacus movingly addresses her bandmates (“If you rewrite your life/ May I still play a part?/ In the next one, will you find me?”), but it’s also there in the fun they seem to be having just playing together.
Indeed, the record’s real fireworks go off when boygenius switch on their rock star mode. Self-consciously leaning into their place in the pantheon of great guitar bands, and giving a nod to the last great heyday of US alternative music in the 90s, boygenius skewer this subculture in a loving sort of way. Satanist has a fun, MTV-era slacker riff that cosplays Mellow Gold-era Beck; $20 sees Bridgers vamping, Cobain-like, when she screams blue murder at its climax; and Not Strong Enough, with its simple but soaring chorus (“I don’t know why/ I am the way I am/ Not strong enough to be your man”) evokes Sheryl Crow’s 1993 single Strong Enough, eliciting the sort of written-for-performance anthem you’ll remember seeing live for years afterwards.
In fact, this summer, in a grand American rock music tradition that stretches from the Rolling Thunder Revue in the 1970s to Lilith Fair in the 1990s, boygenius will headline a tour of outdoor festival-style shows across the US (as well as three concerts in the UK with Ethel Cain and MUNA, a line-up vividly capturing the alternative music zeitgeist). Conditions are ripe, then, for the defining moment of renewal that guitar music has been building up to for some time. The record, in showcasing and centering the friendship and musical partnership between three of the most gifted songwriters of the 2020s, could well be that moment.