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On 'the record,' boygenius honors how friendship shapes our very sense of self

On <em>the record, </em>the members of boygenius craft songs about how we care for each other, why we choose each other and how this kind of closeness can transform us.
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On the record, the members of boygenius craft songs about how we care for each other, why we choose each other and how this kind of closeness can transform us.

The first track on boygenius' record poses a question, sung by three voices in harmony: "Who would I be without you?" It's not that the three songwriters of boygeniusJulien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus — want to imagine possible futures or interrogate the past; instead, they're asking the question as a reminder to cherish our most formative relationships, to honor the vital role these intimacies can play in shaping our very sense of self. "My life is defined by my friends," Dacus recently told Weekend Edition, and, at its heart, the record — the band's aptly titled first full-length album — is a celebration of that fact.

Each of the three members of boygenius had promising solo careers when they formed the group in 2018 and released a self-titled EP, critically acclaimed for its elegant songwriting and rapturously beloved by fans who saw the trio as a whip-smart Holy Trinity of indie rock. After that, each member went back to her individual career — Baker and Dacus each released level-up third records; Bridgers collaborated with everyone from Conor Oberst to Taylor Swift, and her sophomore solo album earned her Grammy nominations — and all politely declined to answer frequent questions about when the band was getting back together.

But in June 2020, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Bridgers tentatively sent Baker and Dacus a demo of a new song and asked if boygenius could be resurrected. Baker made a Google Drive; each member started adding songs; by January 2022, the three of them went to Malibu, Calif. to make a record. They spent 10 hours in the studio per day, every day, for a month. In the bio that accompanies the album, Baker lovingly says the hardcore recording schedule is the result of the songwriters — whose tight-knit friendship predates their supergroup and grew, in part, out of their shared early experiences in the music industry — being "at least one type of the same psycho. The Venn diagrams overlap in 'Every day for a month.' " I hear echoes of her words in a viral tweet that, for me, sums up close friendship immaculately: "me (insane) talking to my friend (also insane): ur not insane. and neither am i." Sometimes friendship is simply another word for finding your kind of psycho.

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Friendship is not the backdrop for the record, or merely context for its creation. It's why and how this album was made. More than just the topic of many of these songs, friendship is the spark that animates its deepest inquiries and the force that grounds its existential questions about how we care for each other, why we choose each other and how this kind of closeness can transform us. Perhaps that sounds like terrain usually reserved for romance, but these are love songs. Bridgers describes writing that first boygenius EP that way, in a Rolling Stone profile: "It was not like falling in love," she says, "It was falling in love." You can hear a reverence for friendship when Dacus sings, "It feels good to be known so well" on the standout single "True Blue." Or in the video for "Not Strong Enough," composed of footage they shot of a day spent together at an amusement park — making each other laugh, posing for goofy photos, falling asleep on each other's shoulders. Or in the touching last line of "Leonard Cohen," another Dacus-led song dedicated to her bandmates: "I never thought you'd happen to me."

Many songs on the record were written directly about experiences the three have shared. The opening verse of "Leonard Cohen," for example, narrates a long drive they took during which Bridgers urged them all to listen closely to a song she adored and then, having gotten so absorbed in her listening, missed their exit. The lyrics frame the mistake, and the extra hour it added to their drive, as an opportunity: "It gave us more time to embarrass ourselves / telling stories we wouldn't tell anyone else." Baker started writing "Anti-Curse" after going swimming in a too-high tide during a boygenius writing trip in Malibu, she told Rolling Stone, and the near-drowning brought her a strange kind of calm. In "Anti-Curse," she sings of "making peace with my inevitable death" and in the very next line, the first thing she thinks of is her loved ones: "I guess I did alright, considering / Tried to be a halfway decent friend."

It's not just the lyrics of these songs that are a testament to these relationships, but the structures themselves. In the climax of "Not Strong Enough," each member sings the same lyric — "always an angel, never a god" — in her own emotional cadence over mounting tension, until the thundering instrumentation drops out and one single voice takes the lead, immediately surrounded by the others' harmonies. Something similar happens in "$20," where each voice sings distinct lyrics in the bridge, complementing each other's rage and resignation. In writing songs this way, each singer is given space to inhabit her own perspective and personality without contradicting the others, their voices frequently overlapping like an urgent and spirited conversation with your best friend. "Satanist" sounds lighthearted, but it's essentially a song about whether someone would stand by us if we changed. Each verse pictures a slightly different path, but that question — would you still love me if...? — hovers over them all; there's something sweet about hearing each bandmate name that fear in her own way, then join in singing on her friends' verses as if quietly answering in the affirmative.

These are some of the album's most profound moments: not just celebrations of friendship but considerations of the more complicated, difficult corners of this type of intimacy. "We're In Love," a swooning, Dacus-led ballad, is a tribute to Bridgers and Baker. It's an intense song, one that acknowledges the risks of such vulnerability from its very first line: "You could absolutely break my heart / That's how I know that we're in love." It doesn't take the long-term certainty of this connection for granted: "If you rewrite your life," Dacus sings later, "may I still play a part? / In the next one, will you find me?" Baker initially rejected the song, arguing to keep it off the record — later, after coming around to it, she admitted that the song is a reminder that "it's still a learning process" for her "to know the difference between being scrutinized and being seen." In light of Baker's admission, the song sounds like the acknowledgement of a simple truth: that our friends might truly know us — our flaws and our mistakes included — and keep choosing to love us anyway.

The album's final track, "Letter To An Old Poet," starts with heartbreak, too. When Bridgers softly sings, "I love you / I don't know why / I just do," she isn't marveling at the wonder of being close to someone but exhausted by the mess of it, surveying the fallout from a toxic entanglement. But as the song progresses and Baker and Dacus join her on harmonies, she gains her nerve. She doesn't sing alone for the rest of the song. "You don't know me," they all sing, defiant, and then the song is suddenly familiar, interpolating the cathartic end of "Me and My Dog" from the boygenius EP. The melody and imagery — Bridgers, her dog, the moon — are the same as that earlier song, but here, one lyric inverts the former version's heartache: "I want to be happy."

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When the three members sing a similar line together at the end of "Me and My Dog," it seems to validate the narrator's pain, to amplify it and make it legible. At the end of "Letter To An Old Poet," meanwhile, after hearing Bridgers admit both her exhaustion and growing self-regard, the lyric sounds like the lifting of a burden. "I can't feel it yet," they sing in the album's final line, "but I am waiting." When our friends share our truth, these songs imply, it can help us see ourselves in a new light: as someone whose pain is meaningful but temporary; as someone capable of patience and deserving of happiness. And if we can't see these things in ourselves, the record demonstrates what it means to see them in each other, to sing backup on someone else's verse until we're ready to write our own. We need these essential effects of friendship, these songs seem to say: Where would we be without them?

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Marissa Lorusso
[Copyright 2024 NPR]