The Record (Interscope)
DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE EXAMPLE of Seeker Lover Keeper. It’s not a given that three different songwriters and singers of quality, when squeezed into the one unit – one that inevitably, because we have no imagination, will be described as a supergroup, or indie supergroup in this case – will make a work of combined genius. Or when they, in this case not boys in any way, amusingly, subversively, call themselves Boygenius.
Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers each have a track record of work that can undercut tendentiousness with dry humour or a flurry of electric guitars, can layer depth on simplicity and bare acoustics, and can move a listener with sparseness just as much as sharing, or indeed oversharing. Solo, or on the Boygenius EP of a few years back, they also speak frankly. Always. No matter the cost.
That’s the inputs, all great starting points, for sure. Though as already said, not a guarantee. But The Record – an album title that already mocks themselves as well as industry tropes – is actually every bit as good as you might hope. Maybe even better.
What strikes you first about this collection is how much enjoyment each finds in the others and in the collaboration. I’m not the first to note that at times this sounds like they are simultaneously standing to one side cheering each shift, extension or reduction, while driving such changes. Or diving into the possibilities of their combinations. Fun is being had.
Take for example how $20, a chunky yet swinging piece of indie ‘90s – you can hear more than trace elements of Belly and Liz Phair in this, something pushed further towards Kim Deal and Frank Black in Satanist – seems to be chugging along merrily with its guitars to the fore and squiggly bits of keyboards for entertainment, before first taking a hazy diversion at half-speed that pulls you in, only to explode into an avalanche of busted throats and urgent arrivals.
By contrast, Cool About It doesn’t just acknowledge its Simon & Garfunkel atmosphere (think particularly The Boxer) across a pure Blue Ridge Mountain accompaniment (acoustic bass and banjo; forlorn harmonies), it positively revels in it.
And I think you can feel this just as clearly in the spectral We’re In Love, where Dacus takes a virtually solo lead (a rarity on an album where so much is shared) in a solemn, even mournful, tone that is matched by low-key piano and keyboards. A song about friendship in its familiarities and flaws it has the confidence not to try to embellish sonically or emotionally, a confidence they could only come from trusting each other.
The pleasure being had is also evident in some of the subject matter, sometimes revolving around either the (forced or fortuitous) absence of men, and the relief of that, or the slightly pathetic need of some men to be centred in experiences, decisions, or, indeed, songs.
Whether it is individual exes encountered in Cool About It (“I came prepared for absolution if you’d only ask,” sings Dacus. “So I take offence when you say no regrets/I remember it’s impossible to pass your test”), the friend/maybe former lover who remains foundational in Emily I’m Sorry (“You know how I get when I’m wrong/And I can feel myself becoming somebody I’m not, I’m not”) or the deluded “equal” in the spacious electronic atmospheres of Letter To An Old Poet (“You’re not special, you’re evil/You don’t get to tell me to calm down/You make me feel like an equal/But I’m better than you and you should know that by now”), targets are not missed.
And sometimes the pleasure is just the chance to be both direct and brutal, with a bonus of funny, as in the vibrating Elliott Smith-ness of Leonard Cohen: “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.”
All three of these songwriters have been labelled purveyors of sad, the modern broken bedsitters, by people who like them as much as by those who dislike, but that has usually missed the point. Not least because all of them have the capacity for spring-loaded pleasure and sadness is just as much an energy as anger anyway.
But The Record puts sadness within a whole lot of individual complexities, shows how sadness doesn’t have to be only sad or can be the start of joy – nothing gives as much pleasure as the emotional shadings in the Cure-goes-pop of Not Strong Enough – or is only sad depending on which side of the mirror you put yourself. And our satisfaction comes in every one of those complexities.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Boygenius – The Record
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Boygenius – The Record
VINYL: Buy Boygenius vinyl