“With You Without Them” is a kitchen hymn sung under soft morning light; it is a song about history, inheritance, and in that spirit carries on with the swooning folk harmonies last heard on the EP’s closer, “Ketchum, ID.” Dacus, Baker, and Bridgers express gratitude to the preceding generations who shaped the people they love—their father, their father’s mother—and ask to take part in this lineage, sharing storylines until they and their intimates become a kind of family too. “Give me everything you’ve got/I’ll take what I can get,” the trio sings a capella, then reciprocates the request: “I’ll give everything I’ve got/Please take what I can give.” The first four tracks of The Record were written independently, and “With You Without Them” is so evidently by Dacus, a ditty she’d sing while washing dishes; it shares a bloodline with her Historian cut “Pillar of Truth.” Here and elsewhere, her voice provides a warm and sturdy foundation, cradling the others’ like a well-loved rocking chair.
Being a touring musician might mean only a brief layover at home, and so the next song drags you out the front door into the Sprinter, Converse laces untied. Led by Baker, the rabble-rousing idealist who was railing against George W. Bush as a 10-year-old, “$20” is a madcap adventure that invokes the spirit of a famous Vietnam protest photo as it tells a story of youthful recklessness. The Tennessee singer taps into her past as a hardcore frontwoman, fulfilling her wish for More Sick Riffs; she also activates a combustive, daredevil streak in her bandmates, who ditch the refined patience of their EP to scream like hell. Later on, the three trade verses on the headbanging “Satanist,” in which they play adrift kids scrounging for shady ecstasy and trying on renegade poses. “Will you be an anarchist with me?/Sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie,” Bridgers sings—then a minute later unleashes wails that sound both like the victim trapped in a burning building and the fire engine racing to the rescue.
Banter flies while Baker is at the wheel, and at other parts of the ride, it’s like the passengers have lapsed quietly into their own thoughts. Guided by the cashmere fog of Bridgers’ voice, “Revolution 0” and “Emily I’m Sorry” exist less within the Boygenius milieu than the rippling, snow-lined headspace of Punisher; the other band members seem only to enter in the form of graceful backing harmonies. Bridgers alludes to real-life incidents whose details remain obscured, former lovers who occupy an uncertain position in her life. The backdrop to the hushed, crumbling apologia “Emily I’m Sorry” seems to be a defamation lawsuit that strained an already-fraught relationship; Bridgers’ mind wanders to apocryphal wastelands, to Montreal, as she entreats the person she loves to forgive her for going astray. “I’m 27 and I don’t know who I am,” she confesses.
The closer you get to somebody, the more you can fail them, and The Record recoils with the humiliating reminder of our own insufficiency: Surely, we imagine, they can do better than us. On the skydiving country-pop song “Not Strong Enough,” the trio offers a rejoinder to Sheryl Crow as they profess to lack the toughness, the solidity, to be what another person needs: “I tried, I can’t/Stop staring at the ceiling fan.” It’s a cowardly and relatable strategy, preemptively curbing disappointment by shrinking away. Elsewhere, they wonder whether distance would have been better in the first place. The Simon & Garfunkel redux and album highlight “Cool About It” explores the anxious, conciliatory phase after a breakup when you emerge from a relationship into a wilderness of pleasantries and deceptions. Friendliness is its own agony: “Wishing you were kind enough to be cruel about it,” Baker sings.
To be wounded, actually and acutely: this is the price of real intimacy. And real intimacy is what you find on The Record, the melding of what’s yours and mine—a favorite Joan Didion quote, songs by Iron & Wine and the Cure, passages from Ecclesiastes—until what’s left is something greater than the sum. Reimagining the EP standout “Me & My Dog” from a new and wiser vantage point, the album closer “Letter to an Old Poet” is, in one sense, an account of Bridgers moving on from a terrible crush. But it’s also subtle testament to the influence of our friends as we carry on in life. The song alludes to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a Dacus staple, as it seems to actualize a wish in one of her best-known lyrics: “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/Dedicated to new lovers.” As we evolve into new versions of ourselves, our friends accompany us into the unknown, bearing witness to and taking part in our transformations. They may hurt us sometimes, but it’s worth it; in the end, better than anything is being understood.
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