Sonically, The Record is a much richer, more ambitious collection than anything boygenius have produced previously, taking in widescreen folk-rock (‘Not Strong Enough’) and low-slung punk (‘Satanist’, ‘$20’), campfire folk (‘Cool About It’, ‘Leonard Cohen’) and string-flecked dream-pop (‘Revolution 0’), plus a swooning a cappella piece shaped around a lush three-part harmony (‘Without You Without Them’).
Though written by Lucy, Phoebe can take full credit for unearthing the latter. “I was like, ‘I want a song that’s like ‘Blue Velvet’.’ And Lucy’s like, ‘Oh… Actually I might have a song…’ And I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?!’”
“It was a washing the dishes song.” Lucy protests, smiling. “There’s, like, this whole category of songs that I don’t show people. And I didn’t think of that as a ‘me’ song because it doesn’t sound like what I do, you know? But Phoebe was like, ‘We have to do it.’ Plus, I like that it kind of picks up where we left off with ‘Ketchum, ID’ [from their 2018 EP]. So I’m glad you made us do that.”
This process of mutual encouragement is integral to the band. They’re the first to admit they’re one another’s fiercest supporters, to the extent they accidentally plagiarise each other on a regular basis. “I totally wrote ‘Garden Song’ the other day,” Julien tells Phoebe, who cheerfully bats back. “‘Revolution 0’ is basically me ripping off ‘Good News.’”
Jokes aside, all three songwriters boast instantly recognisable styles, as demonstrated by the triumvirate of singles with which they announced The Record. ‘Emily, I’m Sorry’ is quintessential Phoebe Bridgers, a slice of folky introspection that wouldn’t sound out of place on Punisher, while ‘True Blue’ showcases the quietly anthemic indie-rock that Lucy has made her calling card. Meanwhile, the buoyant ‘$20’ sees former hardcore kid Julien leaning into her love of riffing.
With most structures initially emanating from one particular songwriter, it does beg the question, what makes a track right for the band rather than remaining a solo endeavour? According to Phoebe, she relies on a type of benign Spidey-Sense. “I always know when I’m writing a boygenius song. Even with ‘Me And My Dog’ I was like, ‘I don’t think this is a solo record song.’”
Lucy is more specific. “A lot of times I’ll write a song for us in a different frame of mind, so you can be harmonising with me and saying something that’s still true for you. I don’t want to make either of you sing lyrics that don’t resonate with you.”
“I really struggle with that,” Phoebe says. “So much of my music is directly my point of view and so specific.”
“Totally,” Lucy nods, “I feel like on a lot of your songs we’re supporting…”
“…like a chorus in a Greek play,” replies Julien, finishing Lucy’s thought. “We’re not a part of the action: we’re standing behind, commenting on or observing it. But these songs only exist because we made The Record. They’re an article of the endeavour rather than a pre-planned thing.”
Lucy takes the final word on the subject. “These aren’t solo songs that we donated to each other: we had to be together to make it.”
Lyrically, The Record treads a tightrope between deadpan humour and quiet devastation. The opening line of ‘We’re In Love’ sees Lucy resolutely opting for the latter, singing, “You could absolutely break my heart / That’s how I know that we’re in love.” ‘Leonard Cohen’ falls firmly into the former camp, delivering a frontrunner for lyric of the year in: “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 / In a Buddhist monastery / Writing horny poetry / But I agree.”
“I think my songs have a theme of being known and feeling present,” Lucy reflects. “Because I don’t feel that at all points in my life, I’m expressing my gratitude for that.” Phoebe sees her contributions as aspirational; evidence of the very process of self-improvement. “Each of the songs I contributed have a vibe of me trying my absolute hardest to not float ten inches above my body at all times. And you guys have helped me with that, so it makes sense that it would make the album.”
‘Not Strong Enough’ is perhaps their most collaborative song: a patchwork of ideas in which each band member takes a verse, as Julien jokes, “boyband-style”. Musically, it’s also the album’s most uplifting moment, its bright melody providing a smokescreen for lyrics exploring panic attacks and low self-esteem. When I point out the deception, Phoebe laughs. “You know the meme of the pink house and the black house next to each other, where it’s like one is the music and the other is the lyrics? That’s literally a couple miles from where we recorded our album. We’ve been talking about taking a photo in front of it for years.”