REVIEW: boygenius's much-anticipated debut, 'the record,' is everything we had hoped for and more
boygenius open their first ever full-length offering with a plea: “Give me everything you’ve got, I’ll take what I can get / I want to hear your story, and be a part of it / Thank your father before you, his mother before him / Who would I be without you, without them?”
Who would we be without everyone who makes up our history, and the people who make up the history of those we love, who are our future?
I’m so thrilled that labels have started partnering with independent record stores to allow fans the opportunity to listen to albums early. Grimey’s in East Nashville also partook in the Lana Del Rey listening party last week, and spun Paramore for us the day after their album release show at the Grand Ole Opry. I feel like it’s a great way for fans to feel more connected, more involved; there really is nothing like going out to these events and listening to the album for the first time on wax.
The first half of the record is nearly entirely songs they’ve shared with us before, apart from “Without You, Without Them” – an a capella rendition of what I’m almost certain is the thesis of this project, the desire to understand the people you love so that you are better able to love them – and “Cool About It” – with its gorgeous picked intro influenced by Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and absolutely devastating references to unraveling relationships none of our narrators are able to fix.
“Once I took your medication to see what it’s like / Now I have to act like I can’t read your mind,” Phoebe Bridgers croons in her verse on track five, telling her subject – an old lover, perhaps, or a current one becoming an old lover, in an inevitable, unstoppable, slow-motion kind of way – that she feels like she doesn’t know how to let them go now that she knows everything about them. She knows she has to do it, and she knows that she can’t stop it from being painful. Nothing feels worse in the moment than feeling someone you care about falling away from you, knowing you can’t do anything to stop this separation. To love is, in and of itself, to understand that loss is inescapable; openness is the risk, emptiness is the reward it forces you to reap.
“$20” we’ve already heard before. It was a part of the very first offering from this LP alongside “True Blue” and “Emily I’m Sorry,” a surprise dropped into our laps way back in late January, and it served as our first taste of what boygenius had become in the three years since we’d last heard from them. This is the tune that Julien Baker brought to the table when the boys first decided to get the band back together. I personally feel like it perfectly encapsulates exactly what Baker brings to the table here – hard-hitting lyrics ripe with imagery that makes you feel like you could close your eyes and be right there with her, followed by an anthemic, chaotic peak and denouement to boot. “It's an all-night drive from your house to Reno / To the T-bird graveyard where we play with fire / In another life, we were arsonists / How long's the Chevy been on cinder blocks?” Tell me you can’t see that T-bird graveyard in your mind’s eye.
Lucy Dacus’s offering was “True Blue,” which, when you listen to the song…duh. It’s so obvious. Look me in the eye and tell me anyone else could have written “And it feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself” – you can’t! The entire song is reminiscent of Dacus’s Home Video, with its themes of finding oneself, making your own family, and unconditional, unwavering love and dedication. I could spend this entire review on this song alone, the heart of this record, honestly: being known is scary, but not being known by you. Being known by you is to be understood, to be recognized. You know me, all of me, therefore I am loved.
“Not Strong Enough” is the last of the songs on this record we’ve already had the privilege of getting to know. This song, Phoebe Bridgers told Rolling Stone, is about “Being like, ‘I’m not strong enough to show up for you. I can’t be the partner that you want me to be.’ But also being like, ‘I’m too fucked up. I’m unknowable in some deep way!’ Self-hatred is a god complex sometimes, where you think you’re the most fucked-up person who’s ever lived. Straight up, you’re not. And it can make people behave really selfishly, and I love each of our interpretations of that concept.” When a representative from the band’s label asked fans at the listening party on Tuesday what their favorite song off of the record was so far, most answered, without missing a beat, “Not Strong Enough.”
The record stops, someone flips it, puts the needle back in place, and we’re hit with “Revolution 0,” a soft, melancholic ode to love in long distance, whose production is reminiscent of Phoebe’s 2020 album Punisher.
The cagey, jilting intro to “Satanist” is almost startling after sweet “Leonard Cohen,” about a time the three of them were in a car together and Phoebe got on the highway going the wrong way, and Lucy and Julien didn’t have the heart to tell her until the song she wanted to show them had been over. In “Leonard Cohen,” Dacus references his song “Anthem” – specifically the lyrics "There's a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in" – implying that the premise of this song could be that we have to open ourselves up to everything the world has to offer in order to experience joy.
On “We’re In Love,” Lucy Dacus is able to truly showcase her abilities as a long-form songwriter. In this song, she tells the story of a friendship so rooted in truth and love that they would recognize one another in every life they ever live: “If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part? / In the next one, will you find me? / I'll be the boy with the pink carnation / Pinned to my lapel who looks like hell and asks for help / And if you do, I'll know it's you / I can't imagine you without the same smile in your eyes / There is somethin' about you that I will always recognize.”
The penultimate track, “Anti-Christ,” seems most like a thread connecting the 2018 EP to this record, anthemic and introspective in a way that feels similar to “Bite the Hand.”
Our closer, “Letter to an Old Poet,” sees us off with an interpolation of one of their most famous songs, calling back to this iconic moment: “I wanna be emaciated, I wanna hear one song without thinking of you / I wish I was on a spaceship, just me and my dog and an impossible view.” I will never forget the moment during the listening party that everyone, all at once, realized what we were hearing.
“I wanna be happy, I’m ready to walk into my room without looking for you / I’ll go up to the top of our building / and remember my dog when I see the full moon” is 2023’s version of this lyric, implying that in the time that has passed since “Me and My Dog” was penned, its writer has been able to heal, if only a little bit.
One of the (many) aspects of boygenius that makes them such a crucial addition to their fans' lives is their earnesty. They’re honest and vulnerable to what some might consider a fault, but I genuinely believe it to be their greatest strength as a group. Earnesty gets a bad rap these days – wouldn’t you so much rather tell the truth, even if it’s hard, than pretend everything is fine and dandy? Listening to boygenius, especially this new record, is like holding up a mirror and realizing that everything you see in yourself, everything you may be scared to breathe life into, is reflected in someone else. In everyone else, if we’re honest. It’s coming to terms with the fact that everyone else is scared, too, and that the only way we can survive our fear is to find good, loving people to be afraid with.
At the center of it all is love; waking up every day and prioritizing it; and whom you choose to give it to.
The Record is out now – you can listen to it wherever you stream music. It’s also available on vinyl and CD from their online store, or from your local indie shop. The Film is up on YouTube, and I would highly recommend giving it a watch.
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