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boygenius - boygenius EP Music Album Reviews

The sizable talent and personalities of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus come together for a harmonious, confrontational, and all too brief EP.

In May, Richmond-based indie rock songwriter Lucy Dacus, fresh off the release of her second album, Historian, told Vogue that she, like all of us, was fatigued by the catchall genre of “women in indie rock.” “I think it’s great that people are noticing that their favorite music right now is made by women, but I just wish it wasn’t a surprise,” she explained. “The fact that we’re women is kind of the most boring that I could think of.” People were often comparing her music to that of other women singer-songwriters, including emo-tinged Tennessean and Dacus’ labelmate Julien Baker, not because their music was all that similar but simply because they were all women.

In a delightful twist on this binary categorizing, Dacus, Baker, and folk-rock songwriter Phoebe Bridgers announced in August that they’d made an EP under the name boygenius, a nod to the way we can carelessly lean on gender to telegraph meaning. A boy can be an individual genius, while women in indie rock are all the same. In advance of a tour they had coming up together, the trio of indie titans decided to record a 7" as a supergroup, and the result briefly winks at, then pulverizes the reductive labels we heap onto women musicians. With compatible interests but varied styles, the self-titled six-song EP is a blueprint for how to do a supergroup right: elevate each other’s individual talents, seamlessly blend your distinct-but-simpatico genres, and sing like hell together in lung-shattering harmony.

While the trio’s previous solo albums crossover frequently in lyrical themes, boygenius succeeds because their individual work doesn’t share one unified musical genre. Self-worth, the underlying humiliation in heartache, and confronting grief are all present in Bridgers’, Dacus’, and Baker’s songwriting—and on their collaborative EP—but each performs in distinct musical styles. For Bridgers, an intimate voice and shy guitar with a folkier bedroom softness; Baker, enormous emo minor tones and a voice that could blow down a building; Dacus, vocals that are clear and confrontational and a guitar shrouded in fuzz. When performed together, it yields an effective kind of magic.

The EP begins with “Bite the Hand,” a song infused with Dacus’ dense guitar tone and characteristic directness. “I can’t love you how you want me to,” she sings, as her collaborators sneak up behind her to harmonize, and Dacus’ guitar, innocent at first, grows to her signature forcefulness. Like half of the songs on the EP, “Bite the Hand” initially deceives as a standalone Dacus song—it would fit on Historian—but as it grows, nuance is added through Baker’s and Bridgers’ ghostly guitars, as well as vocals that twinkle in higher registers. It’s a Dacus song if it were supersized, and it almost collapses under the weight of the trio’s powerful collaboration. “I’ll bite the hand that feeds me,” Dacus sings, inflating into a confrontational voice she embodies easily, while Baker and Bridgers call back with “Bite the hand!”

Bridgers’ earnest lyrics and folkier songcraft are highlighted on “Me & My Dog,” a style that is more ballad-adjacent than Baker’s or Dacus’. “I cried at your show with the teenagers,” Bridgers sings, showcasing her talent for communicating the innocence in our emotions. “I’m fine now/It doesn’t matter,” she continues, aligning herself with a very teenage feeling. “I wish I was on a spaceship, just me and my dog and an impossible view.” Dreams and sleep and fantasy come up frequently throughout the EP, which lend the songs a generous intimacy as if eavesdropping on a group of friends as they share their deepest secrets. “Ketchum, ID” is a Bridgers-led meditation on wanting to move to Idaho, a beautiful and quiet place whose charms still fly under the radar, which was an actual fantasy that Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker all shared.

Baker is imprinted on the entire EP in protracted, cavernous melodies and crushingly clear guitar lines, but she commandeers “Stay Down,” a song in which she delivers the line “I look at you and you look at a screen” like a gut punch. (Conveniently, the song is also about learning how to fight, a spiritual companion to “Shadowboxing,” from Baker’s Turn Out the Lights.) Baker’s solo work is often defined by its literal solitude—listening to her music can feel as if you are alone in a room together—so it is a testament to her talent that she can seamlessly integrate such a lonely style of songwriting into a grander whole. It’s also a sign of the trio’s trust with one another on the EP, where individual styles are championed as often as a new collective sound is enabled to flourish.

The song that feels the most collaborative—and by extension the most emotionally affecting—is the lyrically direct “Salt in the Wound.” It is like the light that emits when the planeteers touch rings on “Captain Planet.” The trio dances on the edge of anger at a subject who repeatedly takes advantage of their willingness to please: “But you take and you take, like silks up my sleeve,” they sing. “Trick after trick, I’ll make the magic, and you unrelentingly ask for the secret.” It’s all indignation and grit, expressed by a collective of women who refuse to be fucked with.

It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities of the boygenius EP as a full-length album, and boygenius as more than just a side project. But there’s a sly message that comes baked into the short EP, a message that is better communicated briefly and then evaporated, and maybe only to those who are really listening. Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker are individual artists with individual tastes and individual styles. “Women in indie rock” isn’t a genre. For anyone still struggling to tell any woman with a guitar apart, the deft collaboration and complex collective songwriting on the boygenius EP is a great place to learn.

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