On ‘The Record,’ Boygenius Doesn’t Add Up To The Sum Of Its Parts

When Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker formed Boygenius, they introduced a new concept: the meta supergroup.

Back when supergroups first emerged in the late 1960s, they were synonymous with young men whose egos were fueled as much by hubris and cocaine as they were by genuine artistic inspiration. That era came and went before the members of Boygenius were even born, but Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker are nevertheless committed students of rock history and well-versed in the conventions of the form. Hence the band name, a witty potshot at the “dude auteur” archetype at the heart of supergroup culture. And then there’s the cover of their 2018 self-titled EP, which slyly mimicked Crosby, Stills & Nash’s iconic 1969 debut. (Bridgers took it one step further by entering a social-media feud with the actual David Crosby, which was extra meta considering that she feels like the Crosby of Boygenius.)

At the start of the promotional cycle for their first full-length album, The Record — one can assume the bravado of that title is also self-aware — Boygenius emulated another lauded “dude auteur” band of yesteryear, Nirvana, on the cover of Rolling Stone. But it was the article inside the magazine that really showed how Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker have redefined the supergroup idea. You know how the supergroups of the classic-rock era inevitably fell apart because the people in those bands could not stand one another? Well, that’s not true of Boygenius. They are the most well-adjusted and emotionally stable supergroup in rock history. They are supportive, democratic, non-competitive, and non-hierarchal. They even attend group therapy sessions together, purely as preventative care to avoid potential future conflicts. “We’re obsessed with each other,” Bridgers gushed. “I like myself better around them.”

Friendship, we can all agree, is good. Though there’s something about how the frictionless interpersonal dynamic of Boygenius is aggressively asserted in everything written about them that seems like a statement about 1) how this superstar collective is different than the rest and 2) how Boygenius is a corrective to the sorry history of media narratives that pit women against each other. It’s another layer of self-consciousness placed on an already acutely mindful operation. Given that the singer-songwriters in Boygenius made their bones writing authentically about dysfunctional relationships, the idealized sisterhood being sold here feels meme-ified for internet consumption. Their magazine quotes demand to be quote-tweeted, rather than merely liked. It’s not that supergroups normally don’t talk like this, no band ever talks like this.

As a fan of Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker individually, I feel like it’s worth taking a moment to ponder why the dude-auteurs inside of all those ill-fated mega ensembles ended up falling out with one another. Because it’s not just the drugs or the pettiness or the toxic male energy. In a band, you have to cede part of yourself for the better of the whole. You must negotiate, accommodate, and compromise. In the process, you will dilute your voice for the sake of the group identity.

And that’s the unresolvable problem of every supergroup, even the smart and thoughtful ones. The complaint about supergroups historically is that they never seem to be as good as the members are on their own. And that’s due almost entirely to the sacrifices that being in a band requires. You can’t be the you that you are on your solo records; you lose you in order to have us.

For all the care they have taken to avoid the pitfalls that felled their predecessors, this is the one issue that the members of Boygenius are unable to avert. The math works against them. On The Record, the sum does not equal the parts.

Each member of Boygenius has an instantly recognizable style. Bridgers is the Elliott Smith acolyte whose whispery delivery belies lyrics loaded with scathing and occasionally violent imagery. Dacus is the keen observer with an eye for wry literary detail. Baker is the emotional brutalist with a Christian impulse to self-flagellate.

The best parts of The Record spotlight those idiosyncrasies. On the hushed folk number “Cool With It,” they each take a verse that plainly signifies their singular voices — Baker is self-deprecating, Dacus tells a short story, and Bridgers quietly seethes. “The Satanist” follows a similar structure, and again Dacus’ sardonic verse wins out. (“Will you be a nihilist with me? / If nothing matters, man, that’s a relief / Solomon had a point when he wrote Ecclesiastes / If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy.”)

The chunky alt-pop of “The Satanist” also highlights the most appealing musical gear on The Record, which extends from the rock-oriented arrangements on Dacus and Baker’s most recent solo efforts. The winning early single “Not Strong Enough” suggests that moving in a Sheryl Crow direction would also significantly leaven Bridgers’ mellow sonic tableau, while the delightfully sludgy “Anti-Curse” reveals that Baker might be well-advised to make a full-on grunge record.

Where The Record falters is when the proximity of these writers’ work inadvertently makes the songs sound one-note and samey. What Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker share is a generational fixation on mediated emotions — it’s not just about how you feel, but also how the other person might be feeling and what those feelings are supposed to mean and then resenting the implications of those projected interpretations. Their songs unfold like the sort of self-interrogations that insecure people instinctively fall into whenever they have an awkward social encounter that they subsequently spend the rest of the night running over endlessly in their minds in the mistaken hope that they can finally “solve” it.

That perspective is obviously relatable to people who experience the world via multiple screens. But on The Record — particularly on the album’s weaker second half — it can feel repetitive and oppressive. There are no less than three songs in which a moment of significant emotional catharsis occurs during a road trip. (If he were a woman in his 20s, Bruce Springsteen could be a member of Boygenius.) While delivering big emotions is the bread and butter of these writers, The Record occasionally veers from empathetic truth into corny manipulation. The worst offender is the would-be showstopper “We’re In Love,” a relentlessly maudlin ballad in which Dacus literally says “Damn, that makes me sad” while reflecting on still more heartache in a karaoke bar.

Moments like that made me wonder if Boygenius would benefit from a little more outlandish hubris. Then again, the fame-powered grandiosity inherent to the supergroup experience works against the strengths of these artists. What sounds fresh and perceptive on their solo records can come across as overblown and cliched here. As it is, I’ll take the intimate insights of Punisher, Home Video, and Little Oblivions over the indulgences of The Record any day.