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The Sneaky Power of boygenius

Self-doubt, hopelessness, and unrelenting gloom do not always have to be endured alone. That’s why Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers teamed up to become the “Power Rangers robot of indie music.”

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Looking down from the balcony, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so few cellphones at a show. One … two … three, I could count them like stars on a cloudy night. Julien Baker was playing. She demanded attention, though she hadn’t had to ask for it explicitly—it’s just that anything other than fixing your eyes and ears on her would have invited the possibility of missing a note, and that was a risk very few people in the room were willing to take.

“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right,” she sang in a voice at once feeble and strong, “and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” The room was reverent: It was Feelings Church. And although there was a violinist accompanying her on stage during much of the set, not to mention the nearly 2,000 people in the crowd, what Baker gave off was a stark sense of isolation. It was like she was the last person in the world.

The point of boygenius is that she’s not. The band (or side project, or “supergroup,” or “Voltron or Power Rangers robot of indie music,” as Baker has called them) consists of Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. They are three young singer-songwriters who make music that vividly describes feelings of loneliness, disconnect, and yearning, but the alchemy, when their voices join, creates its own holistic cure for these feelings. Take, for example, “Souvenir,” the song boygenius opened with, during a headlining set that came after each artist had played solo. Baker sings the first verse, over an unhurried acoustic guitar: “Dreamcatcher in the rearview mirror / Hasn’t caught a thing yet.” But then Bridgers steps in, crooning in her signature, darkly comic style, “Always managed to move in right next to cemeteries / And never far from hospitals / I don’t know what that tells you about me.” Then Dacus, in the third verse, arrives at this raucous pity party and does her best: “When you cut a hole into my skull / Do you hate what you see? / Like I do?” It’s like a rap battle in which everyone is trying to out-sad one another. But that is the sneaky power of boygenius’s music: It implies that self-doubt, hopelessness, and unrelenting gloom do not always have to be endured alone. It can be a great relief, comparing even the bleakest notes with fellow travelers.

The three women of boygenius are all in their early 20s, and they met on the indie rock touring circuit. “Things were happening for us all at the same time and I think we’ve gravitated to each other,” Baker told The New York Times recently. When some time opened up in their schedules earlier this year, they decided to rent a studio in Los Angeles and make some music together. The name they gave themselves was kind of a joke, but it was also a creative mantra—a practical way to get things done in the time they had together. “We were just talking about boys and men we know who’ve been told that they are geniuses since they could hear, basically, and what type of creative work comes out of that upbringing,” Dacus told the Times. “If one person was having a thought—I don’t know if this is good, it’s probably terrible—it was like, ‘No! Be the boy genius! Your every thought is worthwhile, just spit it out.’ It was a way to do things quickly and confidently. We only had four days to go from zero to something, so we couldn’t waste time self-deprecating.”

The resulting EP is striking and assured; not a moment is wasted in its 22 minutes. The weightless, Bridgers-lead “Me & My Dog” feels like an odd but pleasant dream (“I wish I was on a spaceship / Just me and my dog and an impossible view”), the kind for which you’d keep hitting “snooze” in hopes of crawling back inside. The smoldering “Salt in the Wound” takes to task a particular type of villain all three of these women have likely encountered in the industry: “Trick after trick, I make the magic,” Dacus sings in her honeyed deadpan, “and you unrelentingly ask for the secret.” But perhaps the most stirring song is the last one, “Ketchum, ID,” in which the artists bond over the strange displacement of living on the road. “I am never anywhere / Anywhere I go,” they sing in gorgeously melancholy harmony. “When I’m home I’m never there / Long enough to know.”

This project could have easily been a tossed-off, forgettable trifle, especially since it’s unclear whether or not they’ll release any more music as boygenius. But boygenius is an accomplished, immersive piece of work. And to see them live is something special, too. After three strong solo performances, their set as boygenius was a cathartic firework finale. Side by side on stage, it was impossible to see them as young, kindred female artists are too often framed—as competition, rivals, or fodder for lazy comparisons to one another. “Who do you think you are? / Who do you think I am?” Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus sang in unison on the spirited “Bite the Hand,” deriving power from the fact that the answer did not just have to be one thing. They were alone. But they were together.