Nearly half a decade removed from a breakout, self-titled EP, boygenius returns with the record, the indie sad girl supergroup’s first full length. While said EP boasts a singular vision, it seems that focus has been lost in the time since — and with nearly impossible expectations set, the record falls a bit short.
After career surges for each of the individual members in the years since boygenius, the target audience has expanded immensely. Phoebe Bridgers, for example, went from playing small venues to selling out amphitheaters and headlining festivals, with an incredibly dedicated and young fanbase. While Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus are far from household names, both have likewise cultivated respective boosts in popularity over the last few years. Each of them has released a solo album since the original boygenius tour, and each has developed their sound significantly. In 2018, it wasn’t uncommon for a fan of one artist to speak the name of the other two in the same breath; it appears that this is less the case now than it was before.
And that’s one of the biggest problems of the record. Rather than every song feeling like a distinctly boygenius track, the majority of them feel as if they were plucked from the three solo artists’ respective careers and just happen to feature the others. Reportedly, the track “Emily I’m Sorry” was the first demo that Phoebe Bridgers sent to reunite the group, but it sounds notably more like a Bridgers B-side than a collaborative effort. This lack of artistic cogency could perhaps be ignored if the quality of the songs was at least up to par with those of the EP, but that’s not the case for most of the record’s tracklist. Lyrical content tends to hinge on referential winks and the language of someone incredibly online (Phoebe’s relationship to the work of Elliot Smith on “Revolution 0” and the “fuck around and find out” line in “True Blue” both come to mind here). Elsewhere, the track “Leonard Cohen” makes a sort of bizarre allusion to the master songwriter’s time spent living at a monastery, but then references a track from an unrelated era of his career. Quibbles to be sure, but it all speaks to a lack of artistic and conceptual clarity here.
But while misfires aplenty may as well be the record’s tagline, there are also cuts worth celebrating. Opener “Without You Without Them” sonically harkens back to the early days of boygenius tracks, and leads nicely into “$20,” the album’s standout and one of the only instances here where a song feels genuinely collective and lyrically evocative. “Letter to an Old Poet” also offers a glimpse into the past, incorporating moments from “Me and My Dog,” off the earlier EP, to reference the growth and change in the band members’ lives since that time. The biggest tragedy is that more such moments don’t exist on this record; instead, boygenius opt for rote harmonies that never really take off, and some clunky, de facto production.
The release of the boygenius EP and subsequent tour felt like a real “moment.” In small venues across the country, each night closed with an off-mic performance of “Ketchum ID,” a song about the struggle of being a touring artist and trying to survive and thrive under such conditions. To experience, it felt like a genuinely overwhelming collective declaration, and its power was an indication of the potential for stardom that all three of the artists held. As the band now prepares to tour primarily amphitheaters and large outdoor venues this summer, the impossibility of those moments reminds of how far gone the tight, intimate era of the group’s earlier years is. While the success of the three talented artists should certainly be cheered on — the strength of their individual accomplishments and artistic statements in the intervening years is undeniable — what the record primarily leaves listeners with is hope that the next boygenius album will be more indicative of their well-blended sound and collective vision as a group, rather than a mere reflection of the individual stars they’ve become.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.