Thursday, November 30th, 2023

boygenius – Not Strong Enough

Smokin’ in the boys room…


[Video]
[6.35]

Tara Hillegeist: Like much of boygenius’ output, group name included, this is sublime hangout music with pretenses towards something sublimated — pretenses that just about manage to get in the way of the autumn-sunset-at-lakeside vibes the group’s folksy gestures are set on evoking, instead, before falling apart in the face of that sideways glance of a crescendo this song calls a bridge. But it’s hard for me to argue with the evidence at hand that boygenius’ reason for being is a sound one. Imagine if all the anhedonia we shared with each other could sound this sweet; maybe that less-lonely world would have need of fewer critics.
[6]

Hannah Jocelyn: I’ve been working on a Boygenius essay all year, that I may or may not publish; how I relate to, differ from, and yes, envy their collective gender presentation as a trans woman. I’ve written 4,000 words, a lot of which are probably filled with tangents and redundancies, but very little is about the music. That’s because, for the most part, The Record is an unapologetic major-label victory lap, where the three musketeers indulge in mushy love songs for one another and celebrate their bond. It’s impossible to tell who wrote what, as the trio peacefully melt into one another until they’re a massive sapphic hydra. “Not Strong Enough” soars above all this, Sheryl Crow allusion and all, because it’s just a good pop song. It doesn’t have the wit or emotional resonance of their best individual material, but it does have a hook worthy of Crow and some great ear candy (the pumping sweep effect at 2:07, Lucy Dacus’ echoing ad-lib of “go home alone”). Also, Julien Baker name-drops “Boys Don’t Cry” over the chords of “Just Like Heaven.” Nice!
[7]

Michael Hong: On their lead tringle, you can trace the songwriting down to each member: Julien Baker’s nihilistic self-disgust is present under the messy “$20,” Phoebe Bridgers is blunt despite all apologies on “Emily, I’m Sorry,” and Lucy Dacus’ “True Blue” is laced with rich detail — except when it isn’t. “True Blue” cops out on the bridge. “You’ve never done me wrong, except for that one time / that we don’t talk about,” an awkward aside for anyone who hasn’t been disillusioned by the group’s PR campaign. “Not Strong Enough” attempts to split the songwriting and in the process lands with the same issues. Its in-jokes and references are played without so much of a wink, too serious to sound clever. While the three-part harmony at the tail of the bridge is a nice reminder of the distinctions of each vocalist, their verses are economical to the point that individual characteristics, for better or for worse, are difficult to trace in the song.
[4]

Alfred Soto: Bored by the well-intentioned poignancy of their solo music, I was surprised by the speed at which I fell in love with boygenius’ group work. They love performing their intimacy — can you imagine how queerness might’ve advanced had, say, CSN&Y bussed each other on stage? “Not Strong Enough” marries a strong strummed melody to lyrics that take advantage of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridges’ harmonic strengths, a pleasure in itself. The plainspoken confessions match the women’s timbres. 
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: Remember when Chance the Rapper decided to make a great pop rap album as the rapping member of the SoX Experiment and people wanted the next Chance solo album instead and then he did that and y’all hated him more and more? Pray this don’t happen to Phoebe Bridgers.
[7]

Crystal Leww: Women can be fuckboys, too — set to guitar! 
[2]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The closer that these three get to being an actual band, the more they leave me cold. I loved their EP from half a decade ago in part because it kept the essential character of each songwriter intact — these were demos that they had brought to their friends to finish up, not hivemind exercises. Despite working with musicians I like (can we just hear the Melina Duterte/Sarah Tudzin/Carla Azar trio instead?) and doing everything they’re supposed to do as an artistic unit (If I have to hear about the three of them going to therapy together again I’ll have to go to therapy myself), the returns still diminish. “Not Strong Enough” is neither good enough to save rock music nor bad enough to capsize it. Instead, it’s a charmingly indistinct piece of big gesture indie, the kind of song that I can intellectually understand the appeal of while feeling nothing for. It’s end credits music, a slow fade that, for all of my wishing, won’t ever be fireworks.
[4]

Ian Mathers: It is hard to avoid the “people are so weird about this band” field boygenius generates now to just write about the song. But I am 30 or 40 years old and I do not need that (to those shouting “skill issue” or “you deliberately haven’t been paying attention to that stuff”… I see you, and you’re valid). I listen to boygenius as a band, not some weird referendum on who’s solo stuff I like best. And so with “Not Strong Enough” I just hear a lovely and frequently moving song where all three singers get to take a good chorus around the block, and all of them nail it in different ways. The only extra commentary I want is the line from Bridgers I saw quoted on Genius: “Self-hatred is a god complex sometimes.” It sure fucking is!
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: I just think of the thousands of singer-songwriters who get a fraction of their press, while making music that isn’t bland.
[4]

Aaron Bergstrom: The boygenius project could have been a success even if it never exceeded the sum of its parts. It could have been a long-distance book club and mutual admiration society, three wildly talented songwriters who occasionally got together to sing backing vocals on each other’s songs. Maybe it stops there. Even the most like-minded artists can’t always find the same creative wavelength. It happens. When the first three singles from the record were very clearly The Julien Song, The Phoebe Song, and The Lucy Song, it wasn’t necessarily a disappointment (all three are excellent in their own right). It just felt like the group had a ceiling. “Not Strong Enough,” though, points to something bigger. It’s the first song that sounds like boygenius as a band. It’s a song that none of them could have produced individually. The titular hook is Phoebe’s, the “always an angel, never a god” climax is Lucy’s, and Julien’s guitar holds it together (plus she gets to drag race through the canyon singing “Boys Don’t Cry”). There’s a collective joy, a thrill of possibility, something above and beyond their individual brilliance. Listen to them talk about it. It’s cool that they played Madison Square Garden, and Saturday Night Live, and it’s great that they’re going to be near the top of every year-end list that anybody cares about, but none of that explains why this was The Year of Boygenius as definitively as “the way Phoebe looks at Lucy when she talks about songwriting.”
[10]

Leela Grace: In fall 2017 I called my friend from where I was camping in Montana and said, “I heard a song that reminded me of us!” and I sang her the verse from “Funeral” that ends with “we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves/then we laugh until it disappears.” This year we got married. The members of Boygenius have sad-girl brands musically but together, their extratextual joy makes its way into the harmonies. Finding people who understand you is such a rare and special thing, in whatever form it takes, for however long it lasts, and sadness shared is easier to bear. Maybe you can’t control when people leave you or the marks they’ll leave on you: you are always an angel, never a god. But when you sing together you come close.
[9]

Josh Love: The Record is a real “greater than the sum of its parts” type of album. Over the course of its whole running time, the camaraderie and charm of these three women swapping songs and verses, harmonizing and singing background on each other’s cuts, communicates something far more resonant than a single isolated song. There’s not even a Lucy Dacus verse! The greater magic here is how these three roughly similar artists can each evince such distinct personae, to the extent that it’s incredibly easy to attest to an allegiance for any one of them above the other two. I went into boygenius sure I was a Phoebe, but now I’m convinced I’m a Julien.
[7]

Tim de Reuse: Gorgeous, lush — antiseptically corporate. A paint-by-numbers masterpiece in half-formed suburban anxieties. A sleek vehicle assembled by collage: the indie rock appeal to road trips, the indie rock domestic imagery, the indie rock rousing chantalong. I, too, have spent many nights staring at a ceiling fan and catastrophizing. It didn’t sound like a delicate synth arpeggio. I don’t think something this grandiose would comfort me, either.
[4]

Oliver Maier: I don’t really agree with the critique that boygenius is total wallpaper mood music; they’re not here, anyway. The production is satisfying and crisp, the drums clatter compellingly, as if unable or unwilling to find a firm footing on the beat, and there’s no denying the swoop of the chorus melody. But, since by ideology there’s no jostling for space on a boygenius song, accomodating everyone makes “Not Strong Enough” feel like a whistle-stop insecurity sightseeing tour, where nobody has time to explore their stop. Julien Baker revs up a car crash fantasy that vanishes into the hook. Phoebe Bridgers’ lyrical style — rushes of home video vignettes designed to push out the waterworks — doesn’t always land for me, but she usually has more lines than this to give it a fair shake. As for the Lucy-led bridge…well, I’m sure it sounded cool in their heads. 
[6]

Taylor Alatorre: Designed more for Red Rocks than for headphones, the “angel/god” chant-along is the record‘s most obvious effort to transcend the comforting strictures of indie rock nichedom and instead seat the trio in their rightful place as arena rock eminences. It doesn’t exactly do that, mainly because it telegraphs its intent too cleanly and presents too big of a contrast with the rest of the track’s artful self-effacing. The good news for Boygenius is that it didn’t need to do that, because everything that came before that point in the song was already grand and sweeping and buoyantly pensive enough to make any U2 comparisons seem beside the point. (Sorry, I’m not strong enough to avoid making a U2 comparison.)
[7]

Brad Shoup: Along with Drop Nineteens’ “Gal,” one of two alt-rock tracks I’m aware of from this year that references a Cure song. I love how magisterial this sounds–elevated adult alternative — how everyone gets to step into the light. “Always an angel/Never a god” seemed like a weird complaint to me at first — I’d much rather be an angel, people don’t get mad at you — but I was missing the theme.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: That acoustic guitar is strummed with enough vim that you can feel every clang. It provides an initial pulse, then too the bassline and snare. Everything just keeps marching along, traces of beauty found amid the doldrums: listen to those electric guitar flutters, arriving like sunlight upon your face; hear the way each vocalist’s timbre provides new shades of beige. It has an everyday beauty that hides everyday pain. And then the bridge arrives: bullshit tedium in the name of profundity. Always content with the fine-enough, boygenius draw emotion from a vacantness that I wish were all-consuming. Those flickering synths announce a precious listlessness that reminds you that there’s more — I just wish it weren’t so A24 meets Hallmark.
[3]

Jonathan Bradley: “I don’t know why I am the way I am,” the Boys sing in turn, their thoughts so dislocated from their surroundings that walking through the kitchen might as well be speeding along a highway. An insistent drum rhythm hustles the decidedly gentle guitar arrangement, capturing with unsettling precision the feel of being completely lost while the world is rushing headlong without you.
[8]

Jeffrey Brister: Writing about exactly WHY I like a song can be so difficult, because I love this one. It has a lush, full, utterly beautiful arrangement–an array of guitar sounds layered over one another, with a the right amount of synth flourishes that let the ear wander and notice things on repeated listens. Tightly played drums that aren’t too reverb-drenched, dry enough to sit in the middle of the mix without overwhelming or getting lost, an anchor holding the song in place. Three incredible vocal performances, each pulling out different aspects of the melody, and singing in brilliant harmony. A structure that builds and breaks, that drives and explodes with melancholy. It’s a song that I would simply say is “gorgeous”, and leave it at that, but I feel like I wanted a bit of a word count.
[9]

Will Adams: Eh, it’s pretty, I guess.
[5]

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2 Responses to “boygenius – Not Strong Enough”

  1. “massive sapphic hydra” is classic Hannah phrasing, love to see it <3

  2. really, really interested in reading that essay that hannah referenced if it ever comes out

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