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A Roundtable Discussion on the Geniuses of Boygenius

Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus are all back on tours as of Friday, so we thought we’d discuss some important questions about the supergroup. Namely: Who’s our favorite? What’s our perfect boygenius album? And who’d be the best Young to their Crosby, Stills, and Nash?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, musicians Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker will (separately) return to the road for the first time since 2019, with Bridgers launching a U.S. tour in St. Louis and Baker embarking on her tour in Birmingham. Lucy Dacus kicked off her concert trek in July and will remain on the road for almost two more months, which means that all three members of indie-rock supergroup boygenius will be playing live dates domestically throughout September and October. Because it would just be too simple to say “Go see them all,” we wondered: If you could buy a ticket to see only one member of boygenius, which would it be? Below, Ringer writers Ben Lindbergh, Michael Baumann, and Seerat Sohi consider that question and make the case for their favorite genius.

Ben Lindbergh: Before we start throwing blows and biting hands, let’s stipulate that music lovers are lucky to have three perceptive, sensitive, and self-reflective singer-songwriters like Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus releasing songs separately and occasionally combining their powers like crooning Birds of Prey. All three tackle tough themes—spirituality, sexuality, addiction, and mental health—with confessional, cathartic care, and they really respect and like each other. Thus, they would probably recoil at the concept of seizing the spotlight or pursuing special praise at the others’ expenses; as Dacus said in 2019, “I hope people see the three of us and know there isn’t competition.” With that “They’re all good!” disclaimer out of the way: In my mind and for my money, if there’s one boygenius member I’d least like to miss, it’s Lucy Dacus.

Dacus keeps a relatively low profile: She hasn’t donned a skeleton suit, smashed a guitar on Saturday Night Live, or guested on tracks by Taylor Swift, the Killers, or Kid Cudi. She has the fewest followers of the three on social media, and tickets to her upcoming concerts are selling for the least money on the secondary market. America may still be sleeping on Dacus, but since when is being the most popular a precondition for being the best? Dacus isn’t here for the fame: As she sang on the first song on her first album, “Is there room in the band? / I don’t need to be the front man.” That track, by the way, has more hooks in its first minute than you’ll hear on whole albums by Baker. And sure, “hooks” are hardly Baker’s biggest calling card or the be-all and end-all of musical quality, but I’m a simple man who wants to tap his foot and sing along.

Dacus is probably the least emo member of the trio, which may be bad or good, depending on your perspective. Maybe it’s my rockist sensibilities—OK, it’s definitely my rockist sensibilities—but I’m a sucker for smoldering, distorted guitar. It took Baker three albums to embrace a full band, but Dacus incorporated a collaborative, expansive sonic palette while Baker was still largely making music on her own, noodling looped guitar, plinking piano chords, and double-tracking vocals. Neither approach is necessarily superior, but Dacus’s rich sound and supple, soothing voice are more up my musical alley. This may make me seem like a philistine, but I’m in it for the melodies, the guitar tone, and the instrumental interplay more so than the words.

When I listen to other members of boygenius, I sometimes feel like I might not know where one song ended and another began if not for the silence inserted between tracks. When I dive into Dacus’s catalog—which is as big as Baker’s and bigger than Bridgers’s—each composition stands out as a discrete entity as well as one section of a cohesive statement. Of the eight LPs produced so far by boygenius members, Dacus’s sophomore album Historian would be my desert-island disc, and I’d argue that the anthemic breakup classic “Night Shift,” which I can’t listen to once without putting it on repeat, is the best song by any of the three. If you think drafting Dacus above Bridgers and Baker is an extraordinary claim, well, there’s the extraordinary evidence.

To get the best bang for your boygenius buck, go see Dacus and Baker (the two geniuses I have seen live) when they briefly link up for two sets in Richmond, Dacus’s hometown, next weekend. (In the interest of equality, the venue lists one show as “Julien Baker + Lucy Dacus” and the other as “Lucy Dacus + Julien Baker.”) But if you can see (or listen to) only one, make it Dacus.

“Lucy Dacus is my favorite boygenius member” island is sparsely populated, but I’ve built a beautiful waterfront compound there, and plenty of prime real estate is still available for discerning Dacus lovers. Michael, in the Slack exchange that preceded this discussion, you derided my Dacus take, but I’ll defend it to the death (or at least for a few hundred words in a debate blog). Who’s your favorite boygenius member?

Michael Baumann: Far be it from me to besmirch any of the beknighted chanteuses of boygenius—I plan on running a clean, positive campaign here—and I can certainly see your cottage on Dacus Island from my houseboat docked on the shores of Julien Baker Lake.

To explain, I’ll build on two arguments you made for Lucy Dacus. You said she’s the least emo of the three and appeals to your rockist sensibilities, as “a simple man who wants to tap his foot and sing along.” The reason I latched onto Baker first is that I’m somewhat less rockist—the tentacles of my musical taste stretch further into pop and folk than do those of a city boy like you—and supergalactically more emo. I want to tap and sing about a quarter of the time; otherwise I want to cry.

My somewhat glib elevator pitch for Julien Baker is this: What if Elliott Smith were also Mariah Carey? If you had told me when I was 16 that such a musician would someday exist, I would have worshipped her like the actual prophesied Messiah. And, well, here we are.

She can get down in the emotional mud with anyone, mumbling florid and precise lyrics over solo guitar, composing with ease in 3/4 and 6/8, which I think we can all agree are the saddest time signatures. But she can pair that visceral, ugly music about visceral, ugly feelings with clarion electric guitar and piercing vocals. The sadness rumbles in the kettle until it boils over into steam—sometimes within the space of a single song, or even in the span of a couple dozen bars.

My favorite boygenius number is “Salt in the Wound,” which Ben pointed out was a Dacus lead vocal track. But the song peaks on the second verse, where Baker builds on her growling Tom Petty–like guitar by jumping a vocal octave. This is her signature not-screwing-around move, familiar from (at the risk of just naming all my favorite Julien Baker numbers up top) “Rejoice” and “Appointments,” which involves tilting her head back and almost pushing her teeth out of her mouth as she turns herself into a human sorrow cannon. It’s still disconcerting to see someone so tiny make so much noise.

But now I need to go spend some time crying alone in a dark room, so this feels like a good time to tee up Seerat to stump for Phoebe Bridgers, the supergroup’s crossover star and best tweeter.

Seerat Sohi: Speaking of dark rooms and crying ...

Phoebe’s music has a way of getting inside you. She can induce a rainy day in anyone. Maybe that’s why she wears the skeleton costume. You can hear her in your bones. I have to stop myself from listening to her sometimes. But my friends would tell you I’m lying. My friends would tell you I like picking at scabs.

Case in point: I spent a not-insignificant chunk of the pandemic listening to her live music.

I respect Ben’s attempt to go the 8 Mile route on Phoebe’s live persona—the costume, the guitar-smashing—but let’s recognize it for what it is: a fear response. She does smash guitars in a skeleton suit, and that’s fucking cool, but she also does so much more by generally not doing too much.

Live Phoebe is understated, just a little more her, a little more funny when she roasts herself—”This one’s sad too, just a little bit fast” she says before “Georgia.” There’s a little more venom coming off her tongue when she asks the trash heap who inspired “Motion Sickness” why he sings with an English accent, a little more softness when she sings “He missed my heart / Just before everything went dark.”

She pulls the difficult work of being still and commanding a crowd incredibly well. The effect is devastating. She’s just a little more Phoebe, a little more spooky, a little more sad when she muses on boys afraid to become men.

At least that’s how it feels in my room. But what happens live? What’s it like to be coaxed into a state of intolerable loneliness and despair, but around other people? BRB, getting tickets. And therapy.

BL: I just got Phoebe on the BuzzFeed “Which member of boygenius are you?” quiz, so now I’m questioning everything. (Then again, Phoebe got Julien. Is it possible these things aren’t scientific?) I think what we’ve learned here is that there’s a boygenius member best suited for every occasion and character. We each have our number one boy[genius member], but we’re happy the others are out there, and that they’ve all seen fit to team up from time to time.

The more they mature and work together, the more each one seems to synthesize her strengths with those of the others. Home Video is Dacus’s most Baker-esque album, while Little Oblivions sounds like Baker borrowing a bit from the Dacus playbook. (I was sort of slagging off Baker before, but “Souvenir” is probably my favorite boygenius song.) We started this exercise by defending our faves. Now let’s try something more ecumenical: building the best album we can out of non-boygenius songs by boygenius members. The only ground rules for our records are that they have to have 12 tracks and include four songs from each singer. This is the closest we’ll come to a full-length boygenius release until the once-and-hopefully-future bandmates’ incandescent solo careers cool down long enough for them to find time together in the studio.

Here’s my submission, which closes with the wholesome soundscape of Dacus thanking Baker and Bridgers (among others) for helping her nail a take of “Going Going Gone.” (On merit I might’ve made “The Shell” my fourth Dacus selection, but “Going Going Gone” seemed like an appropriate album-ender.) This is about as up-tempo and upbeat a boygenius playlist as one could construct. In other words, I snubbed Sprained Ankle.

Putting this together made me appreciate Bridgers and Baker more. Baumann, let’s see your saddest-hits collection.

MB: I’ll be damned, BuzzFeed thinks I’m a Phoebe Bridgers too. I want my money back.

It’s super confusing, but maybe when I was taking the survey I was thinking about how much the rhythm guitar part in “Motion Sickness” absolutely rips.

The first time I heard that song I was cooking, and without thinking I put down my knife so I could drum on the kitchen counter with both hands. The guitar tone is so messy and wet and it almost bleeds into the organ like a squished banana. I’m still only vaguely aware that anyone’s singing over it.

There are times when Bridgers’s music leaves me adrift in a slightly unsatisfying space that’s neither full-on emo darkness nor the sort of electric divorced vibe of the National or certain Cold War Kids songs, but “Motion Sickness” is in the sweet spot. So is “I Know the End,” with a six-minute crescendo into an ending that I can only describe as what Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois would’ve sounded like if it were about a real downer of a state, like Delaware.

As for Dacus, I included her cover of “Dancing in the Dark” because I’m a white male sportswriter from New Jersey and at some point it’s just not worth trying to go against instinct. I also love “Hot & Heavy,” which is what you’d get if you took 20 percent of the air out of Kathleen Edwards and had her cover Gang of Youths’ “Let Me Down Easy.” (This is a compliment.) OK, so maybe I’m less depressed than I thought.

SS: I …….. got Baker?

So let’s start there.

First, a caveat: Ben, I appreciate your attempt at making this album sound like an actual album. You clearly understood the assignment. I, on the other hand, just picked the songs I like the most, picking up right where you left off with “Sprained Ankle.” I am an absolute sucker for specificity in lyrics, so I gravitate more toward early Baker—when she leaned more toward sad discovery than the acceptance of defeat, etc.

From there, we’ve got the Bridgers picks. “Smoke Signals” opens the album because it should open every album. “Kyoto” gets a nod because it might be the best song I’ve ever heard about what it’s actually like to travel for work, and well, relatable! My only other sticking point in terms of order is I always thought “Chinese Satellite” and “I Know the End” paired well together, with the fundamentalist ruminations transitioning well into the apocalyptic vibes.

With Dacus, I went with “Brando” because I love a song that cuts and swims at the same time. I always headbang a little more than I should given the cerebral music. It’s just like that sometimes.

BL: The finish line is in our sights, so we’ve reached the inevitable last stage of any discussion about boygenius: fantasy-casting a fourth member. (Not that the three we have aren’t enough.) Baumann, Bruce is off limits, but everyone else is in play.

MB: My first impulse was to nominate Brandi Carlile. Partially because she’s my answer to basically any question that starts with “Which musician would you like to see…” and partially because adding a Xennial folk-rock legend to this group would create a big-sibling/little-sibling vibe that I find amusing. But she’s busy with her own highly successful supergroup at the moment.

Which brings up a second question: How is Natalie Prass not in boygenius already?

Is she too bluesy? Is she not heartbroken in a certain specific, ineffable way? Do they not run in the same downer indie-rock circles? I don’t get it, because she’d be perfect.

BL: They definitely run in some of the same circles—she was raised in Richmond and is friends with Dacus—but she’s our age, and we’re too old to be boy geniuses. Maybe that’s the problem. Or maybe it’s an opportunity, because it means there’s still hope for the fourth who was promised: Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. Sure, she has her (two) hands full pumping out solo albums and albums by Big Thief, but the thought of boygenius joining forces with the maker of masterpieces like, um, “Masterpiece,” “Paul,” and “Not” is too enticing not to contemplate. And not only for me: According to Bridgers, Lenker is her, Baker’s, and Dacus’s consensus top pick to be the Neil Young to their Crosby, Stills, & Nash (although they might not put it that way after Crosby got mad online about Bridgers smashing her guitar). Dacus has called Lenker “the greatest living songwriter,” so I hope she’ll understand if Lenker someday displaces her atop my boygenius-member power ranking.

If I have to make a less chalky pick—which sadly can’t be Courtney Barnett, because Bridgers nominated her too—I’ll go with Slothrust’s Leah Wellbaum. Slothrust rules, and like Lenker, Wellbaum would bring a harder (yet still melodic) edge to the band. She can scream and she can shred, but she can also write softer slow-burners like “Strange Astrology,” a boygenius-ready ballad off the excellent Slothrust album that’s coming out next week. Seerat, you’re on the clock.

SS: Listen to Arlo Parks sing “I will wait for the next time you want me” in this cover of “Moon Song” and tell me you can’t physically feel your heart crumble. I dare you.

BL: I think our hearts have had enough for today. Let’s dissolve our blogging band and move to Idaho.