Reckoning with Indie Supergroup boygenius
Looking at my Apple Music last month, I noticed that among my most played songs were six by indie artist Phoebe Bridgers and three by indie artist Julien Baker. Over the past few years, female-fronted indie music has become something of a specialty of mine. So when it was announced that Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus (yet another indie artist) were forming a supergroup called boygenius, all of my synapses fired at once. This was a dream come true.
I had spent the past few years acquainting myself with Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus, and during that time, it became clear to me that the strength of these artists resides in their gifts for storytelling and mood cultivation. On both of her full-length albums, including her recent 2017 release Turn Out the Lights, Baker belts heart-wrenching lines about her mental illness and perceived inadequacies. Bridgers’s debut album, Stranger in the Alps, feels precisely like reliving your first heartbreak and returning to your hometown…maybe too precisely. Dacus, whose music I am admittedly much newer to, tracks all kinds of loss in her sophomore album Historian—loss of love, of faith, and of life. Any song by these artists feels entirely original and inimitable.
Late in August, boygenius released three singles before unexpectedly dropping the self-titled EP in October. Since I had recently developed an affinity for listening to albums or EPs as whole products, I had held off on listening to the singles until autumn. That way, I could understand the entire scope of the story and more accurately feel what boygenius wanted me to feel. Often, my opinions of songs change drastically depending on the vibe of the entire album. For example, a song like “The Sound of Settling” is so tonally unlike the rest of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism that I automatically have a distaste for it, even though I may be apt to like it if it were on a different album. All of this is to say that it is very important to me how a release feels as a whole.
boygenius did not deliver the holistic feeling I had anticipated. It felt more like a compilation of six brilliant songs, each embodying the style of one of the group’s members. “Bite the Hand” and “Salt in the Wound” contain Dacus’s deep vocals and typical guitar tone—heavy and electric with a distinct emphasis on being indie rock. “Ketchum, ID” and “Me and My Dog” encapsulate Bridgers’s soft and ethereal style—the former, an understated and sparse piece featuring little more than all-encompassing vocal harmonies, and the latter, my favorite of the EP. Atop an atmospheric, hazy, and layered blend of instruments and choral “oohs,” it employs an almost country-esque twang while undeniably staying in the folk tradition. Baker’s style is seen clearly in “Stay Down” and “Souvenir,” characterized by recognizable chord progressions strummed expertly on an acoustic guitar, piano sprinkled in the background, and Baker’s intimate and raw vocal performance.
I have all six songs downloaded on my phone, so what’s missing here to keep me from wholeheartedly adoring this? Simply, I think it is the lack of cohesion that I so strongly yearn for in an album or EP. The formation of the supergroup loses much of the confessional, emotional power that all three artists otherwise cultivate. The EP tells disparate stories through disparate tones: Baker’s otherworldly rasp, Dacus’s deep sense of bite, and Bridgers’s breezy atmosphere. boygenius feels like an attempt to turn earth, fire, and air into one element that never quite succeeds. But maybe that is okay.
After all, the three artists did not come together to form a band—on the major streaming services, the EP is under the names of all three artists, as opposed to “boygenius.” I.e., this is a supergroup—a project intended to highlight the artists’ individual styles rather than create one anew. In that regard, the EP works flawlessly, since each song is enhanced by the harmony and grittiness and softness the other singers bring to the table. However, I still cannot seem to shake the idea that an EP should feel likemore than just a collection of singles. I don’t expect this opinion to be universal. In fact, Pitchfork, a popular music-reviewing site, thinks the EP’s variance of styles is a strength and that it “succeeds because their individual work doesn’t share one unified musical genre.” Is it more important for songs to be good or for an album to have a consistent tone? As is always the case when regarding art, perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference.
Beyond my slight disappointment about the lack of cohesion, this group represents something larger than the music it creates. The tongue-in-cheek title of boygenius pokes fun at the fact that the three artists are always framed first and foremost as women in indie music, as if it were an anomaly to have women artists at the forefront of a musical movement. One woman spilling her soul into her lyrics can be perceived as overly confessional, almost cheap if you do not have sentimental sensibilities. But a group of women being open about their experiences is a force—a declaration of presence and importance. Bridgers recalled the writing process to The FADER: “Literally, every day we said to each other, ‘I feel so seen and heard,’” she said. “It was very ‘therapy group.’ We needed each other’s energy. I needed that female energy. I could assert myself and no one questioned me.”
In many ways, this project feels as if it was created for the creators themselves as opposed to the listeners. It is a giant middle finger to the music critics who still frame them as “women in music.” It is catharsis—a declaration that women have emotions and can and will write about them.