Famous humorist David Sedaris keeps a daily diary and once heard someone recommend the ritual because ‘after a while you stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts.” After listening to this new album from Lucy Dacus it was no surprise to discover that she is also an obsessive journal writer. This dedication to documenting her own history has made her a fearless lyricist and on Historian these words are illuminated by an equally fierce and uncompromising sound.
Few artists would be confident enough to open an album with a six minute song, but that tells you everything you need to know about the ambition and talent of this young musician. Night Shift builds so slowly, it’s like an oncoming storm that plays tricks on you until the moment you realise you’re caught in the middle of the downpour. The eruption at the end recalls grunge in the way the guitars mimic her own internal emotional struggle and the use of the quiet/loud dichotomy feels so raw and visceral. When she sings ‘I’ll never see you again if I can help it’ you feel that familiar ache of heartbreak in the guts of your soul. I doubt there will be many better songs released this year.
The tone of the next track Addictions is brighter and has all these unusual layers of weird percussion and brass – adding a hypnotically original feel to the basic indie rock sound. The Shell uses more bass heavy sounds, and yet there’s something sparkling still in the background.
Killer opening lines are a feature of Dacus’ songwriting and none better than ‘You threw your books into the river / told your mom you were a nonbeliever.’ The confusion and uncertainty of youth is present throughout Nonbeliever. When she sings ‘everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out’ you can’t help but sympathise. Yours and Mine admits she’s afraid of ‘my pain and yours’ but acknowledges that being with this person no longer feels like home.
Lyrically Next of Kin is the masterpiece of the album, exploring her anxiety with perfect lines like ‘I’m at peace with my death / I can go back to bed’. The wry acceptance of fate is summed up with the realisation ‘I will never be complete/I’ll never know everything’. Strength is found in coping with failure.
Pillar of Truth sounds like a lost Radiohead song and at seven minutes long she’s not afraid to use each moment of the expansive structure to allow the song to simmer into life. This leads into the ghostly hymn-like Historians where thoughts of death are omnipresent. Together with her love she imagines filling the pages of their diaries so when one of them dies the other will have ‘plenty to read.’ She is unable to voice her own fears so she has to write them down or, in this case, sing them.
Recently Dacus called out a major publication for an interview that printed personal information which she shared off the record. Art might be a form of confession but it’s not an open invitation to another person’s life. Even if being a singer songwriter creates the illusion of intimacy with an audience the artist still has a right to privacy. The social media age has also accelerated the trend for solo artists rather than bands, so when the lens is focused entriely on one person it can be invasive. In the end an album, a diary, or a social media feed should conceal as much as it reveals. You can never know what’s really going on inside someone else’s head.
Thankfully Dacus appears to be tough enough to withstand anything that journalists, fans or the industry might throw at her in the future. Historian is intensely powerful and infused with an unwavering sense of self determination. In five years these songs will no doubt still burn bright.