Music Reviews
the record

boygenius the record

(Interscope) Rating - 6/10

Let’s skip the pleasantries. You all know about boygenius by now. It’s been a month since the record came out and it’s also been a month since an overwhelming majority of music critics confidently anointed it the album of the year/decade/century/millennium. Apparently it was love at first listen. But I wonder how confident those early champions of the supergroup’s debut are feeling about their 10/10 ratings now?

We recently debated perfect ratings on our Quarantine the Past podcast, and I admitted to regretting some significant misjudgments in the past. Not Blue Rev, though; I’m standing proudly behind that one. The desire to experience greatness in real time is alluring; we all want to share in the collective moment of a monumental release. Remember Merriweather Post Pavilion? We guzzled the Kool-Aid with the best of them when that bloated mess inexplicably broke the aggregators, and our frankly ridiculous review sits in the archive as a constant reminder that sometimes it’s just better to wait a bit. Of course, holding fire in the hope of a more considered judgment is awful for web traffic, but we gave up caring about such metrics long ago. We’d much sooner avoid gushing about ultimately unremarkable music.

So let’s talk about the record. It begins with a capella opener Without You Without Them, a fitting introduction to a collection of songs that are predominantly about vocals and specifically vocal harmonies. There’s a traditional folk feel to this that evokes Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music. While Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus all sing well and consistently harmonise effectively, this is the moment where their chemistry reaches its pinnacle. The vocal highlight.

The Julien Baker led $20 follows and is the record’s musical highlight. A purposeful mid tempo indie-rocker, it reminds me a little of peak Wolf Parade. As its wailing crescendo is brought to a sudden halt, expectations are building. It’s a genuinely great start, but the momentum is quickly squandered on the insipid Phoebe Bridgers track Emily I’m Sorry. There’s a fatal moment as Bridgers sings “she called me a fucking liar” where the little inflection in her delivery hits like Owl City, and I just can’t unhear it; sonically, it’s the miserable soundtrack to Dawson drowning in his eponymous Creek.

The rest is mostly just fine. Cool About It sounds curiously like Simon & Garfunkel’s America, and is building into something quite lovely until Bridgers delivers one of those lyrics that stands out for the wrong reasons:

“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’m not a huge fan of picking lyrics out of context - a lot of indie-rock lyrics are fairly dumb anyway - but this stopped me in my tracks (and the doctor in me is required to add that it’s really not how medication works) and tainted what could have been another highlight. Perhaps in the interest of solidarity, Lucy Dacus tosses in another terrible lyric for the ages in Leonard Cohen, but at least that song wasn’t really going anywhere before her jaw-dropping misfire.

Not Strong Enough seems to define boygenius and the record. Three unique voices come together to deliver moments of beauty that occasionally distract our attention from the unremarkable arrangements beneath them. There are several moments where it feels like the band is on the cusp of something powerful, yet they never quite seem capable of finding the necessary gear to realise their immense potential. Much has been said of their spirit and friendship; perhaps there’s something a little too cosy and polite holding back the record? When those harmonies gel, boygenius exceeds the sum of its parts, but I think the opposite is also true from a songwriting and musical perspective. Working together often appears to dilute their potency, exposing limitations that simply aren’t evident in their solo careers.

So, the record is not an epoch-defining instant classic. It’s just fine. Occasionally amazing, pretty in parts, patchy in others. It’s not uncommon for debut albums to be flawed; let’s try to enjoy the boygenius journey rather than trying to rush to the climax.