Cross Talk: the record Skips a Beat
In a cross talk, two writers sit down to discuss a book, movie, TV show, or piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree; other times, they’re in perfect harmony. Here, Arts & Culture Editor Ben Togut and Assistant Arts & Culture Editor Nicole Lee sat down to talk about the record, the first full-length album by boygenius, a supergroup of indie songwriters Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Ben Togut: Okay, so we are here to talk about the new boygenius album called the record which came out on [Friday,] March 31. And I’m gonna be honest, it was kind of a letdown for me.
I had high expectations [from] the singles. What I heard from them just made me excited about the energy that we were gonna get from the album. Like with “$20” you have that angsty, classic Julien Baker sound. And then also “Emily, I’m Sorry.”
Nicole Lee: Which is a very sad Phoebe Bridgers song.
BT: And even “True Blue” was good. The singles are strong, but I feel like the other songs just don’t do it for me in the same way.
NL: I have to agree. I also think the issue is that, rather than a single cohesive group, it just sort of feels like we’re listening to Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus all putting separate songs on an album. And I feel like at that point, why are you creating a group? Why not just create a collaborative album?
BT: Exactly. And I feel like their collective sound works better on the boygenius self-titled EP. It felt a lot more evenly distributed. I have an attachment to that EP, because it came out when I was a senior in high school, so it was a very angsty period of my life. “Me & My Dog” was that song for me. I feel like now that they’ve all gotten bigger, they’ve tried to showcase each person in a different way, but it just comes across as not cohesive.
NL: It really doesn’t. I think it also has to do with the fact that, when we are moving from one lead artist to the next, you can tell they all have a super distinct sound, and the album’s organization doesn’t exactly help to hide that. We go straight from “$20” to “Emily, I’m Sorry.” Those are really different sounds. It is kind of disappointing.
BT: There’s a different feel for this album. It’s highlighting friendship, and that’s great. But for me, they’ve lost a lot of emotional resonance from the EP to this project. Everyone online has been talking about the song “Leonard Cohen.”
NL: Oh, wasn’t it written by Leonard Cohen?
BT: No, it references a Leonard Cohen song. People have been talking about the lyric, “Leonard Cohen once said, There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in/ And I am not an old man having an existential crisis/ At a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry/ But I agree.” And I know they’re trying to be witty and ironic, but it just comes across as annoying.
NL: It’s a little like, “Oh, I’m so cool about it. Can’t you see that we’re so different,” even though at the end of the day…
BT: It’s like they’re trying to create this lore about the group where they are people who are very disillusioned, and that somehow makes them cool, and that just annoys me. I think a song that does a similar thing but works better is “Satanist.” First of all, the guitar line is killer, and they’re addressing this nihilistic, almost Gen Z/millennial feeling that I think a lot of people can relate to. They’re doing it in a way that is ironic but also very rooted in feeling.
NL: It feels honest and I think it really shows that Baker was at the lead with this. Knowing what we know about Baker’s history, her relationship to Christianity, and taking a look at Baker’s solo music, it makes a lot of sense as opposed to “Leonard Cohen,” where…we have this intense criticism where it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. It doesn’t really make sense with what the disparate members have done in the past or the group as a whole.
BT: “Satanist” is deeply felt but ironic. Especially with the lyrics “Will you be an anarchist with me?/ Sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie?” and “Will you be a nihilist with me?/ If nothing matters, man, that’s a relief.” They know what they’re doing, but not doing it in a way that’s cringy like in “Leonard Cohen.”
Back to what I said before, they’re trying to cultivate a reputation that is snarky and “Oh, we’re smart and disillusioned, and we see things differently than other people do.” I find that annoying and honestly a little pretentious. The reason the first EP worked is because they were being true to themselves and their feelings. Now, it feels like they’re trying to cater to someone or trying to get there to be a meme about their song.
NL: So much of their careers, both apart and cumulatively, have been concerned with gut-wrenching honesty. Just thinking about Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker separately, they’re so well-known for songs that are brutally honest about tough topics. And then “Leonard Cohen” comes in.
BT: I want to give them the chance to move on from this deep emotional honesty, songs that almost feel like confessionals. But with this album, they’ve done it in a way where it loses urgency. The last song on the album is called “Letter To An Old Poet.” A lot of people have been pointing out that the melody is very similar to “Me & My Dog,” especially in the bridge. Instead of “I want to be emaciated” and they sing “I wanna be happy/ I’m ready/ To walk into my room without looking for you/ I’ll go up to the top of our building/And I remember my dog when I see the full moon.” I’m glad that they want to be happy. I’m glad that they don’t always want to live through these dark feelings. But it kind of feels a little empty. When I hear that, I don’t think “Oh my god, there’s this amazing personal growth, they’re finally ready to have a new attitude about their relationships and the world.”
NL: It’s also because nothing about the record positions it as a response to the EP, but then all of a sudden they end on a note where they’re responding to one [of] the most honest songs on the EP. It just came out of nowhere. And it just seems like that’s the name of the game with the record. “Without You Without Them” completely took me by surprise because it’s the only song like that on that album. It’s a choral song and is a minute and 20 seconds long, and it makes no sense for what it is. Every single time I think there’s going to be a common musical through line. “Oh, we’re leaning on the guitars. We’re leaning into more of an indie rock, maybe a little sleazy sound,” we pull back and get something like “Leonard Cohen” or “Letter To An Old Poet.” Like, I can’t tell where you want me to go with this.
BT: I think there’s a difference between wanting to show your versatility as a songwriter and another thing where an artist is doing so many different things that it doesn’t cohere. It feels like there’s no real grounding to the album.
NL: Pop Matters, when they wrote their review of the record, said that it felt “democratically curated,” which speaks to my main issue. It’s democratically curated. You can feel every singer’s hand in the mixture, but no one mixed it. It’s still separated.
BT: I just feel like it would have been better if they had focused on showing one or two genres. To not have choral, rock, and soft-spoken, slower songs. It just feels a little bit all over the place to me.
NL: I also feel like that’s in part because of how they organize the album. I think if they slowly led us, like “We’re starting slow, we’re ramping up. Here’s the big rock one. And then we’re coming back down. And here’s something slow and sad and soft to end it,” that would’ve made more sense to me. I still wish that more of the songs were all three on lead vocals as opposed to just one, but I think that at least that would have led us on more of a coherent musical journey.
BT: Like with the song “Cool About It,” which is trying to make you feel deep emotion, it just doesn’t do it for me. What’s hard about listening to this album is that I’m so attached to the songs on their EP. It’s hard for me to hear that honest, unapologetic songwriting, and then see them do it again, but not feel that same emotional response to it. It’s just not hitting me in the same way.
NL: I feel similarly, because when I listen to the EP I’m locked in. Nothing is really going by me; it’s not background music. When I got to the record, I had to listen to it four or five different times, because I would just totally lose focus on it. I would get a little jarred when we moved from one song to the next. If you really asked me to pick a standout out of all of them, I’m not going to pick anything that’s exclusive to the album, it’s only going to be one of the singles.
BT: I think it’s also a letdown partially because we’ve had exciting projects from all of them since the EP. We’ve had “Punisher” from Bridgers and “Home Video” from Dacus, and I think those projects took their songwriting in a different direction, a powerful direction. Whereas this album is more mellow, which I’m fine with, but doesn’t make me feel anything.
NL: It feels like they are trying to create this whole new reputation and they just haven’t realized that they already have it. There’s nothing new they need to cultivate. They’re not starting out as relative unknowns anymore. All three women are so well known on their own at this point that I feel the record keeps trying to justify why this band is together and justify them as artists. But we’ve gotten your personal statement. I don’t need another one. Honestly, if this is supposed to make me look forward to a second boygenius album, listening to it made me a little less excited. All three are established enough that I kind of expected something more exciting, and I feel like I’m listening to them plucking tracks that didn’t make it into their own individual albums.
If you had to pick your favorite song, and then your least favorite, out of the track listing, what would you pick?
BT: I think “Satanist” is probably my favorite and “Cool About It” is my least favorite.
NL: I think “Emily, I’m Sorry,” is actually my favorite and either “Letter To An Old Poet” or “Anti-Curse” are my least favorite.
BT: I don’t really have anything else to say except I hope on a future project, they find a way to showcase their voices in a way that complements each other, where it doesn’t feel like three different singers on an album. And something that feels more like the EP, something that feels urgent and together.
NL: I have to agree with that. And I hope in the future, [if] they decide to keep going this route where everyone needs a different song as opposed to them collaborating together, they try to push themselves in a different direction.
Ben Togut can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole Lee can be reached at email@example.com.