Album Breakdown: “the record” by boygenius

Written by Mckenna Ryan

I simply need to talk about the genius (haha) new album from renowned Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker indie outfit, boygenius. All three musicians have been consistently slaying for years, both in their breathtaking solo work and 2018 self-titled EP. Bridgers has found the most mainstream success, but Baker and Dacus have an equally notable ability to craft complex, emotionally dense lyrics perfectly highlighted by stripped down production. The three of them come together under boygenius to create a unique, blended sound informed by their close friendship. 

the record shifts from the solidly indie sound of their previous work to something somewhat more upbeat and rock influenced, and it is great. At its core, the album is a series of love letters written to each other. The friendship that powers boygenius is distinctly queer, remaining platonic while crossing sexual and romantic boundaries in a way that may seem incomprehensible to those on the outside. Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus explore this complexity and reject any clear distinction between romantic and platonic love. Each song on the record feels deeply personal and cathartic, as “the boys” lean on each other while expressing complex feelings. From breathless confessions of love to literal screams of rage, boygenius remains unceasing in their dissection of relationships at their core. They explore the fundamental human desire to love and be loved, and ultimately find that need fulfilled in one another.

the record kicks off with “Without You, Without Them”, an acapella track with Dacus on lead vocals and Bridgers and Bakers supporting her with sweeping harmonies. The track explores how we are deeply shaped by the people in our lives and by those who came before us (see “Pillar of Truth” of Dacus’ 2018 album Historian). Despite such existential subject matter, the track still manages to feel grounded, and remains musically complex even without instrumentals. “Without You, Without Them” is a fitting start to the album, with hymn-like reverence for love and relationships.

Next up is “$20”, an absolute banger that, though far more punk-inspired than anything the group has done before, still manages to feel classically boygenius. The track is off with a bang as Baker sings, “It’s a bad idea and I’m all about it”. She goes on to paint a picture of reckless youth riding motorcycles and lighting shit on fire. This desire for freedom stems from a place of desperation, and seems to lead to self-sabotage. The boys explore an alternative life in “$20”, one where they can be loud and dirty and free and smash shit without anyone telling them no; one where they have the freedom to make the mistakes boys get to make: “In another life we were arsonists”.

Dacus and Bridgers complement Baker beautifully throughout, their voices building and building until the chorus, when their stunning harmonies suddenly turn chaotic. Their voices overlap as the cracks begin to show through this fantasy of a boyish, consequence-free childhood. Bridgers breaks through the noise, pleading, “May I please have twenty dollars?” The chaos reaches its peak as Bridgers screams, “I know you have twenty dollars”. When the track abruptly ends, the listener is left with the impression that boygenius has accepted – or is resigned to – their fate. 

“Emily I’m Sorry” features Bridgers soft vocals over stripped down acoustic production. Coming off heartbreakingly insecure, Bridgers describes a failing relationship. She seems ready to roll over and give up anything, to become “someone only you could want”, just as long as Emily keeps loving her (“Just take me back to Montreal / I’ll get a real job, you’ll go back to school”). Bridgers’ offer to “burn out in the freezing cold” highlights her conflicting feelings and desires as she tries to force a relationship that just isn’t working. Bridgers’ meek facade seems to mask a fury ready to boil over as she represses her anger at herself, at Emily, at love itself for not being fucking fair.

Seemingly reflecting this internal struggle, “the film” – which features the Kristen Stewart directed music videos for “$20”, “Emily I’m Sorry”, and upcoming track “True Blue” – finds Bridgers standing, pale and barely moving, as monster trucks rage behind her. As the song nears its end, Baker and Dacus join, and Bridgers lights the car behind her on fire. With visible relief, she now seems ready to move on.

“Emily I’m Sorry” seamlessly transitions into “True Blue” as Dacus takes the reins and lovingly shifts the focus back to the boys, her best friends who have been there all along. “True Blue” marks a breakthrough from the previous track, as the tone changes from “I’m twenty-seven and I don’t know who I am” to “When you don’t know who you are, you fuck around and find out”. Dacus describes intimacy that doesn’t create pressure to be “someone I’m not”; in fact, “it feels good to be known so well”. She describes how her friends see her as she truly is, including her flaws, and still love her completely. This complex, deep love is directly connected to the trio’s queerness; as shown in the “True Blue” music video, expressions of sexual and physical intimacy among queer women aren’t limited to romantic relationships. boygenius’ refusal to limit their capacity for love creates a beautiful friendship where nothing is off limits.

There’s no claim that their relationship is perfect, but there is an understanding of their fundamental love and respect for one another: “You’ve never done me wrong except for that one time that we don’t talk about / Because it doesn’t matter anymore / Who won the fight? / I don’t know / We’re not keeping score”. Baker and Bridger’s backing vocals become more and more present as “True Blue” progresses, almost as if Dacus is opening herself up to their support, right up until the track’s slow fadeout.

Next up: “Cool About It”. This song is divided into three verses, each member describing meeting an ex-lover. Backed by mellow acoustic guitar, Baker begins, nailing the forced friendliness and politeness that masks the bubbling pain under the surface: “I’m trying to be cool about it / Feeling like an absolute fool about it / Wishing you were kind enough to be cruel about it”.

Dacus is next, capturing why meeting with your ex for closure is often so deeply unsatisfying: “I came prepared for absolution if you’d just ask / So I take some offense when you say, ‘No regrets’”. Dacus wants her ex-lover to admit wrongdoing and own up to how they hurt her so she can move on, but they can’t give her this validation.

Bridgers’ verse details the emotional whiplash of talking to someone you once knew so completely who now has their guard up around you: “Once, I took your medication to know what it’s like / And now I have to act like I can’t read your mind / I ask you how you’re doing and I let you lie”. While Bridgers lets her ex think they’re being “cool about it”, she does the same, attempting to hide her lingering desire for them.

“Cool About It” ends abruptly and on an emotional low, ensuring even the listener is left without closure.

Up next is “Not Strong Enough”, an upbeat track that finds the boys too lost to take care of themselves, much less be with anyone else. boygenius explores the strange comfort of mental illness, found by convincing yourself that your problems are unique and unknowable. As per Bridgers in a Rolling Stone interview, “self-hatred is a god complex sometimes”. “Not Strong Enough” finds boygenius enraptured with their suffering, and aware of their indulgence. They push people away because they’re “not strong enough to be your man”, an unreachable and self-imposed expectation.

The track is a communal effort written and sung by all three members. The bridge sees Dacus repeating, “always an angel, never a god”, working the listener into a frenzy until Bridgers and Baker jump in, screaming their support in the song’s soaring climax. Even in a track about self-sabotage, the boys are still there to support each other.

“Revolution 0” follows, a slow, Bridgers-led ballad about, according to Rolling Stone, her experience falling in love with someone she met over the Internet. Her description of the relationship is skillfully linked with her struggles with mental illness (“Imaginary friend / You live up in my head”) and broader sense of disillusionment (“I don’t wanna die / That’s a lie”). She seems to resent falling so deeply so easily: “If it isn’t love then / What the fuck is it? / I guess / Just let me pretend”. The lyrics are tinged with resentment, suggesting a less than amicable end to the relationship: “You wanted a song / So it’s gonna be a short one”.

On the closing line, “I used to think / If I just closed my eyes / I’d disappear”, the music fades out, distorting slightly, then suddenly returning to its previous intensity. Instead of making the song “a short one” as promised, something changes Bridgers’ mind, and the track keeps pushes forward (just as she keeps fighting her depression despite her exhaustion: “Wish I wasn’t so tired / But I’m tired”). “Revolution 0” is melancholy and hopeful, tinged with themes of disillusionment and obligation. It offers a skillful look into the intersection of love and mental health through the impersonal lens of the Internet, in characteristically blunt and heartbreakingly honest Phoebe Bridgers fashion.

Coming in at just under 2 minutes in length, “Leonard Cohen” offers the listener a brief glimpse into the boys’ friendship. According to Rolling Stone, Bridgers was so passionate about showing Dacus and Baker “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron and Wine (“On the on-ramp, you said / ‘If you love me, you will listen to this song’”) that she started driving the wrong direction on the highway. They let Bridgers play all 10 minutes of the song before letting her know (“So I didn’t tell you you were driving the wrong way on the interstate until the song was done / You felt like an idiot adding an hour to the drive / But it gave us more time to embarrass ourselves / Telling stories we wouldn’t tell anyone else”). This simple description of a real moment between the three highlights the ease with which they love and hold space for one another – something that, notably, is not described in their romantic relationships.

Next up is “Satanist”, a track reminiscent of “$20” with its electric guitar and Baker’s charming, tongue-in-cheek descriptions of reckless abandon (“Spray paint my initials on an ATM / I burn my cash and smash my old TV”). Things seem to have advanced since “$20” from teenage rebellion to a quarter life crisis. In a self-conscious acknowledgement of self-discovery and how it changes relationships, the boys try on different labels and wonder if the person they love will stick around anyway: “Will you be a satanist/anarchist/nihilist with me?” It doesn’t appear that any specific identity is intended to be taken too seriously (“If the void becomes a bore, we’ll treat ourselves to some self-belief”): the exploration itself is the point. “Satanist” ultimately describes the desire to be truly, fully loved, and to have the freedom to change.

“We’re in Love” is a heartbreakingly earnest ballad from Dacus to her bandmates. From the very first line, she faces the absolute terror that is true vulnerability: “You could absolutely break my heart / That’s how I know we’re in love”. Soft guitar compliments Dacus’ vocals, refusing to obscure even a moment of her heartfelt confession. She expresses her complex inner world to her friends and asks for reassurance: “I feel crazy in ways I never say / Will you still love me if it turns out I’m insane?” Dacus describes what her life would be like if she lost Phoebe and Julien, concluding, “Damn, that makes me sad / It doesn’t have to be like that / If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part?”.

With her heart in her throat, Dacus details a love that spans across lifetimes, one from which she could never move on. She asks, “In the next one will you find me? / I’ll be the boy with the pink carnation pinned to my lapel”. Dacus knows that she will love her friends in every life: “There is something about you that I will always recognize / And if you don’t remember / I will try to remind you of the hummingbirds”. On the verge of tears, Dacus continues to describe a lifetime’s worth of memories (“I could go on and on and on, and I will”). “We’re in Love”’ is a rushing current of emotion, stated calmly and plainly. It is the heart of boygenius.

Second to last is “Anti-Curse”, a classic Julien Baker track with poignant, existential lyrics and dramatic crescendos. “Anti-Curse” is sharply existential, as an everyday event suddenly forces Baker to contend with her own mortality. (Baker describes going swimming and almost drowning in the ocean while with the boys.) She uses this experience as a metaphor for “drowning” in her own thoughts: “It’s coming in waves”. As Baker faces her death (“Salt in my lungs / Holding my breath / Making peace with my inevitable death”), she looks back on her life (“I guess I did all right considering / Tried to be a halfway decent friend”). This near-death experience seems to bring some clarity to Baker, and reminds her of the beauty of life. As she reminds us, “You don’t have to make it bad / Just ’cause you know how”.

“Letter to an Old Poet” begins, seamlessly transitioning from “Anti-Curse”. With quiet fury, Bridgers describes a toxic, all-consuming relationship, established as unequal from the very first line: “I said ‘I think that you’re special’ / You told me once that I’m selfish”. Bridgers describes her ex-lover calling her music “mellow” and telling her to calm down, ultimately stating, very plainly, “You don’t know me”. Soon, Dacus and Baker join in, empowering Bridgers to speak her mind: “And I love you / I don’t know why / I just do / But / You’re not special, you’re evil / You don’t get to tell me to calm down / You made me feel like an equal / But I’m better than you and you should know that by now”.

After this emotional catharsis, Bridgers expresses her desire to move on (borrowing the melody from “Me and My Dog” off the 2018 EP). “I wanna be happy, I’m ready / To walk into my room without looking for you”. As Bridgers sings the last line on the album (“I can’t feel it yet but I am waiting”), Baker and Dacus step in to let her take a breath. She holds this final note for 20 seconds, making the listener wait for closure right along with her. It doesn’t come.

“Letter to an Old Poet” is a fitting end to the record. It’s a breathless combination of happy and sad that remains grounded in its hope for the future. The boys are together every step of the way.

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