Faith and Searching in Boygenius’ New Album

by | Apr 3, 2023 | Current Events, Music, Pop Culture

Boygenius spends much of their latest album, The Record, listless and wondering. Released last Friday to critical acclaim and earning the band a place on the cover of February’s Rolling Stone, its collection of twelve indie-rock songs has caught listeners in a similar mood. The trio sings about self-destructive tendencies on “$20” or lingering post-breakup sadness on “Not Strong Enough,” and the weight of just being alive seems to settle into the space between the headphones. For Boygenius, it can be hard to make any sense of these little absurdities and bigger perplexities—if there is any sense to be made of them at all. They are not out for easy explanations.

The members of Boygenius have been making music about hesitant faith and hopeful skepticism for the better part of a decade now. “Rejoice” from Julien Baker’s 2015 debut album is a praise and worship song at a folk punk show, and prompted an earnest profile in The New Yorker titled simply “Julien Baker Believes in God.” Later, critic Jia Tolentino would compare her to the medieval English mystic St. Julian of Norwich in her review of Baker’s sophomore album, Appointments. More dubious in her outlook, Lucy Dacus’ songs “Nonbeliever” and “VBS” tell stories about walking away from religion, even though its preoccupations have a way of hanging around. But for Dacus, people find a way out, they grow up and move on. “Everybody else, everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out,” she belts over a cathartic outro. For her part, Phoebe Bridgers’ songwriting chronicles the decaying underside of civil religion in abandoned community centers, charity runs, government drones and proselytizing evangelicals. On her second album, Punisher, she sings “I want to believe / instead I look at the sky and feel nothing,” practically a creedal statement for the religiously unaffiliated. For all three artists there is an earnestness and importance to the questions themselves. On The Record, they keep asking. 

At first the songs can sound irreverent, usually in ways that feel more playful than acerbic. One verse goes “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.” Few songwriters are bold enough to lob sarcastic shots at the high priest of pathos, but for Boygenius it is not about ridicule. True and profound things are not true and profound because of who said them or why, but because the thing is true and profound itself. Origins are sometimes surprising. “I never thought you’d happen to me,” they sing on the outro.

It all comes back around to sincerity. “Was anyone ever so young?” they ask simply, even naïvely. Confronting the angst of doubt, even comfortably in the mid-twenties, has a way of making someone feel like less than a grown-up. On “Anti-Curse,” Julien Baker sings about breaking curfew and “unpacking God in the suburbs,” and it is not clear whether she means picking her Sunday school lessons apart or earnestly considering who God is for the first time. It seems those two might not be that different anyway. Then there is the song’s quiet conclusion, “An incantation like an anti-curse / or even a blessing.” The drums drop out and the last line leaves the door open a crack, enough space for a hopeful afterthought to have the last word.

Still, plenty of noisy and confusing darkness remains. Most of these songs sound like they are on the edge of falling apart at the seams. It is all intentional—one of the album’s real strengths is meticulous mixing and creative sound design. Lurking between the carefully constructed vocal harmonies and crisp downstrokes on acoustic guitar are sounds of decay. It is there in the lo-fi haziness of “Without You Without Them,” the sighing white noise and detuned piano in the first few seconds of “True Blue,” the distorted screams on the bridge of “Satanist,” the ambient echoes in “Revolution 0.”

Everything seems to come to a head on “Satanist,” a few tracks before The Record’s end. The song starts out as pop punk throwback, an electric guitar with plenty of overdrive hitting every downbeat. If you didn’t glance at the title, you would be forgiven for mishearing it as a summer hit from 2000s K-Love. Then Julien Baker enters, asking “Will you be a Satanist with me?” almost offhand. More suggestions follow as Boygenius spin out the possibilities for adopting anarchism and nihilism, “at least until you find out what a fake I am.” Believing anything seems to carry this risk, that somehow our lives always fall short of our values. Boygenius makes this point with a bit of biblical exegesis, singing “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.” But there is a loneliness to walking away from everything. Left with only a nod to self-belief, the song crashes into a slower tempo as the trio sings in tight harmony, “You wonder / if you can even be seen.” For his part, Solomon (or better Qoheleth), comes to a somewhat different conclusion by the end of the book. “So you do not know the work of God / who is working in everything,” reads Ecclesiastes 11:5. Yes, so much of life is repetitive and empty, confusing and fickle, but human stupidity has never completely been able to wreck love, if you believe that is what is at the heart of things.

That is the uncertainty at the center of The Record. In spite of messy break-ups, personal weakness, or half-formed doubts, somehow Boygenius has managed to make it. More than that, they have found each other. “If you’re not enough / then I give up / and nothing is,” they croon over soft strings on “Revolution 0.” Belief or unbelief, God or no God, where one spends Sunday morning or Friday afternoon, these are vague questions with even vaguer answers for most of us Gen Z’ers and younger millennials. Why commit to anything at all? Are the outstretched hands on the album’s cover reaching out to the heavens or are they waving, hopeful for recognition? “Always an angel / never a god,” Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus sing over and over again on the driving bridge of “Not Strong Enough.” But what good is it to be either an angel or a god, to be imposing and out of reach at the top of an altar or flatly painted on the ceiling? It is much better to belong, to be held in someone else’s hands and loved.