Music

Despite their witty name, boygenius’s new album is too self-absorbed to rise above the banal. By Shaad D’Souza.

boygenius’s The Record

Members of boygenius standing on the shoreline of a beach with the sun setting behind them.
boygenius members (from left) Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker.
Credit: Harrison Whitford

It’s only April but boygenius may have just written the most unabashedly cynical lyric of the year. About two-thirds of the way through the indie supergroup’s debut album, The Record, Lucy Dacus delivers this remarkably glib pearler:

 

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.

 

Reference and interpolation are absolutely no reason for pearl-clutching – last month, Lana Del Rey referred to the same Leonard Cohen song, 1992’s “Anthem”, on a resplendent new song titled “Kintsugi” – but there’s something uniquely grating about the way Dacus attempts to have her cake and eat it too. She simultaneously nets easy points for dismissing Cohen as a “horny old man” while recycling one of his most well-known and resonant lyrical motifs. Although a band with a name such as boygenius – which pokes fun at tropes of male artistic brilliance – deserves to have their fun rampaging through the canon, it’s hard not to baulk at such a lazy gag. This is not so much “playing with the canon” as robbing its grave and spitting on it.

boygenius is a trio comprised of Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, three American indie-rock singer-songwriters who have risen to remarkable fame in the past few years off the back of a direct and emotive style of songwriting. Baker and Bridgers especially have tapped into a strain of emo revival that’s been growing exponentially during the past decade, dressing up the aesthetic hallmarks of pop-punk – a nasal, heavily rhotic vocal style; linear, unembellished and largely metaphor-free lyricism – in airy, tasteful indie-rock arrangements suited to an audience that would likely bristle at genuine pop-punk.

Bridgers is the most popular of the three, skirting close to household-name territory in the wake of her 2020 album Punisher, which struck a chord with listeners trapped at home in need of something gentle and easily replayable. Since the release of Punisher, she has collaborated with Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney. Although all three members of boygenius share songwriting and vocal duties equally, it is Bridgers who makes The Record such a big commercial prospect – it is being released on Interscope Records, home to Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga – and it is Bridgers who stood in the Kurt Cobain position on a recent Nirvana-referencing Rolling Stone cover.

Fittingly, it is also Bridgers’ lyrical style that most pervades The Record – a boilerplate indie record that draws from country, rock and new wave, churning them into something familiar and easily playlist-able. Bridgers writes in a way that is blithely descriptive but not very deep: her lyrics tend to feature an avalanche of specific images and dialogue fragments that rarely coalesce into anything greater. “Emily, I’m Sorry”, the first Bridgers solo cut on The Record, is full of moments like this (“When I pointed out where the North Star is / She called me a fuckin’ liar”) but its meaning is likely inaccessible to anyone except the titular Emily.

Baker and Dacus adopt a similarly banal style across The Record. “Leonard Cohen”, sung by Dacus, is a beat-for-beat description of a road trip the three boygeniuses took together (“I didn’t tell you you were driving the wrong way / On the interstate until the song was done”) while the Baker-led “Anti-Curse” plots out her attempt to swim at high tide (“I’m out of my depth at a public beach”). The pure, unadulterated triteness with which the trio write becomes laughably absurd. During the climax of “Not Strong Enough” – admittedly one of the only songs on the album that feels even slightly durable, thanks to its huge, punchy hook – Dacus declares “I think I’ve been having revelations”. Although her voice is weighty with portent, you have to take her word for it.

It’s this aspect of The Record that makes the Leonard Cohen joke feel so egregious. Dacus quoting “Anthem” is a sharp reminder of how little the boygeniuses care to actually imbue their lyrics with anything other than raw detail. There is something insulting about quoting such a famous lyric but feeling the need to couch it in internet-type irony, as if the writers feel they are above metaphor and above writing anything other than an advertisement for the lives and personalities of each member of boygenius. The lyrics on “Leonard Cohen”, too, are without any discernible structure or form; this can be a style in itself, but when the lyrics are so affectless it just feels careless.

My main takeaways from this album are diaristic fragments: fun facts like “Julien Baker likes The Cure” or “boygenius went on a road trip”, rather than sparks of emotional clarity. The most memorable lyrics might have been better left in the band’s drafts folder on Twitter. “When you don’t know who you are / You fuck around and find out” is a little funny on first listen and a more brittle truism on every subsequent hearing.

The Record ultimately feels like a boygenius album about boygenius, a quality not helped by the fact that three songs are quite literally written about the experience of being in boygenius. I can’t imagine it would be particularly interesting to anyone who is not a member of boygenius, or at least a boygenius superfan. Then again, there are quite a few boygenius superfans and the marketing campaign for The Record has smartly played up the band’s own friendship. In interviews, journalists are not allowed to ask questions about their personal lives, meaning that all profiles of the band have zeroed in on a couple of images, including the road trip chronicled in “Leonard Cohen”, and gushed over the real-life bond that the three members seem to share.

This is a curiously amnesiac way to write about music – articles about boygenius seem to think that Bridgers, Dacus and Baker invented being friends with your bandmates, or collaborating equally with other musicians, or even simply being a woman in a band – but it is a coup for the band. At a point, listeners are bound to become more invested in their own parasocial relationships with boygenius than in the music itself. Watching the self-filmed video for “Not Strong Enough”, in which the trio spends a day at an amusement park, you may be so charmed that you forget that most of The Record likely wouldn’t pass muster on any of the band members’ solo albums. There’s definitely something genius about that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2023 as "Enfants terribles".

This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.

To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.

Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription