By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator
Album: The Record
Favorite Songs: “$20,” "Not Strong Enough" and "Letter to an Old Poet"
All feels right in the world when Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus come together. Even if only for just 42 minutes (the length of Boygenius' latest record), the harmonization of their voices has the power to lull your mind away from your present troubles. And even less temporary is the impact of their songwriting.
The Record, released March 31st, is a heartfelt letter written to anyone finding their own. And at the end of the day, aren’t we all?
Whether it’s the queer joy expressed by the supergroup that helps a young person coming into their sexual or gender identity, or if it’s the biting lyrics Bridgers sings about an ex in “Letter to an Old Poet” that finally encourage someone to get out of their relationship with a toxic partner, I can imagine scenarios where Boygenius and their music can reach listeners in a very real way.
I was able to bear witness to this magical effect at Wanna Hear It Records in Watertown, Massachusetts— one of over 100 independent record stores chosen to host listening events for The Record. The listening events offered the chance for fans to hear an exclusive listen of The Record three days before it was set to officially release.
The unique experience left me with a deeper understanding of what makes me, and so many others, appreciate their music. The stories told are not our own, but we find ourselves in the intricacy of the lyrics; the emotion pouring out of their voices; the sonic choices. And beyond just relating, we learn from the growth they display.
THE LISTENING EVENT
I find out from the raffle ticket I take on the way into Wanna Hear It that I’m the thirtieth person to find my spot in the already crowded record store. Another thirty people come in after me.
Some people close their eyes, focusing in on only the music, but I scan the room. I watch for head nods and foot taps. My eyes catch on the people silently mouthing the lyrics to already-released singles that they’ve committed impossibly quickly to memory. I glance over some of the iconic albums that decorate the walls of the record store. I think to myself that this album will soon lie among some of those greats.
And I think, too, of the way that Boygenius forms such a unique sense of community. Fans were bubbling with excitement before it came on, yes. Forming friends with the strangers next to them, even. But once the music started flowing from the speakers, it felt less like an album release party than it felt like a group meditation.
There were occasional laughs— the biggest from “Leonard Cohen,” right after Lucy Dacus calls out Cohen for being “At a Buddhist monastery, writing horny poetry.” And some gasped at Phoebe Bridgers’ blunt lines in “Letter to an Old Poet.” But mostly, there was silence and self-reflection.
Whether they are reflecting on past habits or musing on interpersonal relationships, the members of Boygenius wear bits of their histories on their sleeves— mistakes, shortcomings and all. “I want you to hear my story and be a part of it,” the three sing acapella-style in the haunting album opener. The just-over-a-minute track, “Without You Without Them,” blurs the lines between hearing a song versus being sung to.
The three tracks that follow were the lead singles used to announce the album: “$20,” “Emily I’m Sorry,” and “True Blue.” Each led by a different member of Boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and then Lucy Dacus, respectively), they present a phenomenal range sonically. With the album out in its entirety, the themes begun by these tracks can also be traced through the rest of The Record.
ANGST AND ERRORS
With its compelling guitar riff, persistent drumbeat and tasteful placement of a Phoebe Bridgers scream, “$20” feels fiery and full of motion— both of which tie-in lyrically, with lyrical references to arson and race cars. The track sets the stage for other moments of angst on the album, like “Satanist” and “Anti-Curse.”
“$20” depicts someone grappling with dissatisfaction about their own life and the world as a whole. Caught in this paradigm, they turn to impulses, for better or for worse: “It’s a bad idea, and I’m all about it,” sings Julien Baker.
“Emily I’m Sorry” is a striking example of reflecting on past actions and owning up to one’s errors. Phoebe Bridgers sings the song to a woman she had a relationship with, apologizing for “becoming someone [she’s] not.”
SELF-DISCOVERY AND STANDING YOUR GROUND
This acknowledgement Bridgers makes of straying away from her authentic self carries into the album’s strong themes of self-discovery and standing your ground. The album paints these themes as a progressive journey, starting initially with insecurity.
In the heart-wrenching, slow-tempoed “We’re in Love,” Lucy Dacus asks the question, “Will you still love me if it turns out I’m insane?” A similar sense of insecurity is on display in the more upbeat, warm and acoustic “Cool About It.” Julien Baker starts out the lyrics seemingly about going on a first date, singing that she’s “feeling like an absolute fool about it.” These lyrics offer comfort to anyone who sometimes feels less than, and worries about other people’s perceptions of them.
“Not Strong Enough,” then, is almost like an anthem for finding that sense of comfort and acceptance with the feeling of being lesser. Sonically, it’s a bright spot in the album, ushering in this positive message with a pop-ish drumbeat and upbeat vocals. “Always an angel never a god,” Boygenius collectively sing in the repetitive bridge. They call to attention the way men are on a higher pedestal automatically, even in how they’re referred to— men being “gods” and women “angels.” When they sing that they’re “not strong enough to be your man,” it’s with pride in their voices.
As Dacus eloquently puts it in “True Blue,” the next step “when you don’t know you are,” is “you f*** around and find out.” The journey of self-discovery then ends with wanting better for yourself and standing your ground. It’s a message clearly put across in the simple but biting lyrics of “Letter to an Old Poet.” The tones of the piano that back the song are slightly dissonant, mirroring Bridgers’ conflicted feelings. “I love you, I don’t know why but I do,” she sings in the verse leading to the chorus. Then, Baker and Dacus are backing Bridgers as she sings about realizing she’s better than this former flame. “You aren’t special you’re evil,” she adds. It's a truly powerful moment of declaring her worth.
I try not to read other music reviews when they’re on the same album I'm writing on, but I couldn’t help but catch wind of a Rolling Stone writer describing how something “dangerous” happens when Boygenius comes together. People were poking fun at that descriptor. I was too, on first thought. But in listening to the album and hearing fan reactions in a live setting at the record store, I see how danger could lie in the way such powerful female songwriters can affect listeners.
A lot of people might make this album a part of their personality. And yes, maybe I mean that in what’s often called an “obnoxious” way, like getting tattoos of the lyrics, or hanging up the album art in their locker at school. But I mostly mean that in the sense that people will bring along the message of staying true to themselves as they carry themselves through life. People will find it in themselves to grow when reflecting on insecurities and troubled bits of their histories. And people will stand their ground in interpersonal relationships, knowing when they deserve better.
Whether your first listen to The Record is in a crowded vinyl shop with total strangers, or in the solitude of your bedroom, I hope you ultimately walk away from listening with the same sense of inner peace and power that I left with.