It feels like something of a betrayal to admit that I don’t like boygenius very much, nor am I particularly fond of its constituent members: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. I thought their eponymous EP was harmfully monotonous and I’d written off their sound on the same grounds that I had written off Bridgers’ solo work.
I’m proud to say, however, that their new album breaks from their conventional sound at times. Although much of it reflects the idioms of their past, they branch out in both subtle and obvious ways that add interest to their sound and present promise for their future endeavors.
The album opens on the brief “Without You Without Them.” The track is acapella and recorded in a low-fidelity format, sounding as though it could’ve been recorded impromptu on a phone or with a single microphone.
It’s just a quick couple of verses, but already I was pleasantly surprised. The barbershop-esque harmony and melody, as well as the lo-fi, casual sound of the recording make it feel familiar and intimate, and the lack of meter and time give it a relaxed, flowing feeling that ushers in the album well.
We immediately hear the most extreme example of their sound in “$20,” which opens with chunky guitar chords and heavy drums. Considering the scope of their previous music, this second song blindsided me, but I thought it was among the album’s best efforts.
The singers’ three-part vocal harmony is used to resting on a soft bed of gentle harmony, but it fits this more intense texture surprisingly well, with a shifting, odd meter keeping the groove varied. In my opinion, the composition and production on this song are more creative and interesting than anything else boygenius had released to this point, and I hope they have learned from the process of creating it.
The next several songs are classic boygenius, featuring sparse instrumentation and dense vocal harmonies. This type of song holds less appeal for me, but I understand its attraction; the muted, morose sound is calming and cathartic in low moods, and the textures are undeniably beautiful, with each vocal harmony written as its own isolated melody.
Fans of boygenius’ earlier work need not fear this album’s experimentation. The group’s core ethos certainly pervades “the record,” and their emboldened cohesion is readily apparent in these tunes as well. They feel warmer and more intimate than comparable tracks on their EP.
Another departure comes in the form of “Satanist,” which turns up the energy, but doesn’t get quite as intense as “$20.” It begins similarly, with distorted guitars and punchy drums, but is more relaxed in its tempo and features a less busy texture.
“Letter To An Old Poet” takes the album out with a whisper. Bridgers leads the vocal harmony, which floats, effervescent, on piano arpeggios and soft string swells. It begins somewhat rubato, with a time-feel that gradually develops over the first minute or so. This effect is carefully done enough that a listener might not at first even notice the rhythmic regularity that arises.
“the record” is something of a mixed bag. It features a heavy dose of the melodic melancholy for which the band is known for, while showing the fruits of some of their experimentation.
Although I’m personally most excited by these newfound modes, I find myself more and more endeared to their classic sound as I’m exposed to it. The composition, arrangement and performance are elegant and skillful, it just tends to fall into patterns the lack of which might add some variety and interest to their discography.
Previous fans of boygenius will undoubtedly be thrilled with this new release, but I’d wager a guess that it’ll attract some new listers as well. I know I’ll be keeping tabs.