Lucy Dacus had the burden of expectation placed on her during the making of Historian. The Richmond, Virginia singer/songwriter debuted in 2016 with No Burden, a muscular yet tender and vulnerable work recorded in a matter of 20 hours for a school project of her friend, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Blizard. It was a strikingly accomplished work, with a warm and comforting 90s indie rock-infused sound underpinned by driving guitars and Dacus’ haunting and ringing voice – resembling something like a deeper Julie Doiron or Angel Olsen, like a benevolent spectre wrapping herself around the instrumentation. Now signed to indie giant Matador, Historian is Dacus’ “difficult second album” with which so many before her have faltered. Thankfully, she manages to avoid this by building on what she already had with her first album, while furthering her sound and songwriting. In other words, Historian feels very much like a natural progression, even if a conscious one.
Historian was recorded in Nashville, and no doubt thanks to the increased budget, the warm soundscape of the album is filled out and coloured by additional instrumentation. Horns adorn a number of the songs – especially lead single “Addictions”, accentuating one of the most driving songs on the record, while adding a poignancy and a warm glow to penultimate epic “Pillar of Truth”, moving the elegiac nature of the song towards a celebration of a life. String sections colour some songs as well, adding to the rainy, melancholy feel of “Nonbeliever” and the tipsy wood cabin waltz of “Body to Flame”. Come to think of it, much of this album sounds like hiding in a warm wood cabin, in front of a fireplace, keeping warm from the snow. Most importantly, though, these elements are not overused – it would have been too easy to dilute their impact by putting them all over the record, but Dacus only uses them when absolutely necessary, making their impact all the more noticeable. It would be amiss also not to mention Jacob Blizard, who returns for this record after having featured on No Burden. A classically trained guitarist, his blistering guitar impresses throughout, adding to the emotional intensity set down by Dacus’ lyrics and delivery. His burning solo at the end of “Yours & Mine” more or less makes the whole song worth the price of admission alone, while he lights up “Timefighter” with a blistering solo – like a tamed monster, controlled, precise, but writhing, somewhat even channelling David Gilmour. Blizard also plays a number of other instruments, like the pearly organ coming through on the aforementioned “Timefighter”, giving the stark and smoky song some light, as well as the ringing icy keys on “The Shell”. If there is one thing, it’s that the drums, for the most part, are just there and often sound like a drum machine. But that’s only a minor quibble, really – there is plenty of life to be found elsewhere.
Ultimately, though, this is Dacus’ record – and it is her poetic and direct lyrics and sonorous delivery that are at the heart of it. In some ways, her songwriting mirrors that of fellow southern crooner and friend Julien Baker, though where Baker broods and dwells on her emotional and physical turmoil in lengthy, winding couplets, Dacus focuses more on hope in the face of “the inevitable darkness of life.” That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of melancholy on this record – much of it is steeped in breakups and their aftermath, escape and loss. But in the end, it’s in those lines of hope and positivity filtered through reality that the album’s heart lies. With that, there is a certain arc to the record. Whereas some of the songs on No Burden seemed to concern the early stages of attraction, the trepidation of the start of a new relationship, opener “Night Shift” puts us at the end of a relationship, with a sense of apathetic resentment towards the other while trying to move on with her life. “Addictions” sees her describe the relationship as, well, an addiction, where the withdrawal sets in and she seems to be lost in the post-relationship oblivion. Despite the earlier comment made regarding the drums, they really help bring this song to life – the rolling clicks at the beginning setting it in motion, making for perhaps the most immediate and muscular rock song on the record.
“The Shell” sees her aimless and meandering, “busy doing nothing,” over fittingly cold and haunting instrumentation. It all has a dreamlike feel, especially the breakdown around 2:40, which sounds like a lucid dream of walking through neon lights and snow in the night. The song also has what may as well be the defining line of the record – “you don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing,” which also works as something of a mission statement for Dacus. She longs for escape from herself, to be anyone but herself. “Nonbeliever” is concerned with a rejection of religion, with a rainy and stumbling instrumentation which evokes the feeling of running or driving away, building to a negative mantra of “everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out.” She eventually becomes tired of running away in “Timefighter”, one of the starkest and most intense songs on here, before reaching acceptance on “Next of Kin”. Here, it feels like the darkness and frustration has lifted, reflected by the song’s overall more upbeat and driving instrumentation – there is a brightness to the song that was largely absent before. She sings, “I am at peace with my death; I can go back to bed.” She has overcome the post-relationship oblivion and “learned to be alone.”
Of course, that would be leaving out some of the songs in between, which are often more subtle, but no less impressive – especially the epic slow-burner “Pillar of Truth”, which acts as something of an emotional centrepiece of the record. A song about the death of her grandmother, Dacus effectively conveys an elegy for someone who obviously meant the world to her – “a pillar of truth, turned into dust,” over appropriately weighty and sprawling instrumentation. The horns make for a bed of knowing sadness as the song builds, before she really wrings out the emotion that the loss had on her, letting with a scream of her soul. The album also closes with its quietest song, the near-title track, which feels like a quiet and intimate moment between two close friends in the dead of night. A warm cello comes in as they pledge to be each other’s historians, to document each other’s experiences, thus rounding back to the album’s title and closing out with a sense of quiet resolve.
But ultimately, it is still opener “Night Shift” that impresses the most. Over a quietly strummed, meditative guitar intro, Dacus delivers the most arresting lines on the record: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit; I had a coughing fit…” And it only keeps building from there, with some of the most direct lyrics of the record, describing the confusion and apathetic resentment one feels after a breakup, as well as trying to move on with life in the midst of it – “trying to derail my one track mind.” The best moment comes at 4:12, when the quiet frustration which has been building suddenly gives way with a quick squawl of feedback, as the song explodes with fuzzy, overdriven guitars, reaching a desperate intensity as she almost screams out – “you’ve got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift,” doing anything to avoid seeing this person. She even imitates a guitar solo with her voice near the end, a curious addition.
Lucy Dacus has delivered a very solid, sometimes exceptional follow-up in Historian, successfully building on the strengths of her first album and avoiding the second album slump, even with the immense pressure placed on her during its production. It’s hard not to root for someone like her, and one can only hope that she endures and continues to build her voice, even if the hype eventually wears off. With Historian, it seems that she is already well on the way.