- by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:2018-03-02 Label: Matador
Richmond based singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus has a distinct advantage over other artists attempting to plow the same plot of earth. Early in her career, she already has amazing vocal command on par with an Angel Olsen or Laura Marling and knows her way around complex composition of a song like a mid-period Elvis Costello. High minded comparisons perhaps, but Dacus has the chops to back it up and as great of a sophomore album Historian is, you get the sense that maybe we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. If she doesn’t have formal musical training all the more impressive and she should be giving lessons. Between her songwriting, vocal command and confidence in handling all matter of production she has put together a cohesive work that spans many different approaches.
Though Dacus insisted she didn’t want to be funny anymore on 2015’s solid No Burden, she arrives with her wit fully intact on the opening track ‘Night Shift’. The opening lilting line of “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit” sung over gently strummed electric guitar is not only witty, but it instantly grabs you that this is not going to be your typical break-up song. And the way she lifts her voice at the end of line gives the beginnings of a cinematic air and sounds like it was ripped straight from a Rogers and Hammerstein classic musical. The song builds slowly in two minute segments in its over six minute course, with Dacus singing “I’m doing fine” portraying anything but. Drums kick in first and the song builds to add fuzzed out guitar (with pulses echoing Elliot Easton of The Cars), swells of strings and her most soaring vocal. Dacus lays her hand out early with ‘Night Shift’ delivering on all her musical strengths and the lyrical content of her dodging around town doing any and everything to avoid running into an ex-lover ups the ante considerably. It would be understandable to be concerned that she couldn’t keep the quality up for an entire album, but as strong as the opener is there is plenty more to get excited about here.
The power pop of ‘Addictions’ with its clickety-clack drum beats and brassy horns, all of which Dacus ably sings over is another impressive early track. Keeping her cleverness intact the song includes the ring of truth couplet: “I’m just calling cause I’m used to it, and you’ll pick up cause you’re not a quitter” as she also compares a lesson in finance to relationship returns. She tightly and expertly packs a lot into single songs, this being great evidence of her capabilities.
But Dacus is at her compositionally most complex on ‘The Shell’ and ‘Body to Flame’, the latter being a delicate construct that would set alongside any track on Costello’s Imperial Bedroom - a perfectly delicate jewel box of a song. The seemingly inconsequential line “Longing for your short hair to grow back to the way you like” sounds like the most important thing in the world as the song pirouettes in and when she gets to “laughing aloud at the spinning stars” the listener is totally mesmerized. ‘The Shell’ has more power, but just as many melodic twists and turns. ‘Nonbeliever’ is driven by sawing strings and walks a fine line between telling off a friend while the music and her vocal pacing also evoke a strong streak of empathy for the subject.
The strongest song of the album, ‘Yours And Mine’, appears as also one of the most political, but that’s not the reason for its strength. It’s just a perfectly developed pop song that while portraying a spirit of activism (“someone lit the store on fire, someone lit the house on fire, someone lit the crowd on fire”) it also builds to a tightly wound spring of a chorus. The interplay of “you and yours” contrasted with “me and mine” along with the brilliantly beautiful gospel-like harmonies create a dynamic tension that carries the song to great heights. The song recalls the handful of play endlessly on repeat songs that always appear on a Jenny Lewis album.
The harder edged and bluesy bluster of ‘Timefighter’ and ‘Next of Kin’ seem a bit out of place, but Dacus tackles them with no issues and avoids over singing when you think she might. Some may view that the production gets a little heavy in places, but Dacus handles all matter of tempos and levels so well it becomes a non-issue and there are plenty of lower key moments as well. The album closes on a pair of more nostalgic notes with the stately seven minute reflection on Dacus’ grandmother a respectful and reverential ballad to a “mother of a mother of a mother…raised in the era of the milkman”. Dacus again takes a simple turn of phrase “I tried to be the second coming, and if I was nobody knew” and speaks paragraphs of admiration in a single sentence.
Historian ends on the gentler cello-driven (and pluralized) title track which describes long time lovers. Keeping her tongue in cheek she describes the couple keeping separate logs of the relationship and when the first dies the other having plenty to read. As the song fades to a melody gently echoing Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ Dacus asks, “Was I most complete at the beginning or the bow?” Undoubtedly, Dacus will be better at the bow someday hopefully a long way off, but she’s on a ramped trajectory already. She’s the type of artist that could equally front a high energy punk band in a small club or stand solo in front of a full orchestra. No Burden was a very good debut, but one could be forgiven for not expecting her next outing to be the intricately painted masterpiece of Historian.
Mark, this review is spot on! While I am a bit late to the game on this one, I can't stop listening to this record. Great write-up!