Lucy Dacus opened her hair-raising 2015 debut album No Burden by announcing to the crowd that she didn’t want to be funny anymore, musing about the rigid shackles of social roles, but it isn’t hard to see why she was crowned with the title in the first place. Even in the aftermath of loss, Dacus incorporates lyrical asides and playful turns of phrase that are meant to entertain, a soothing balm that functions as a distraction from mourning. Her sophomore effort, Historian, once again finds her as a fully formed artist, demonstrating a control and an urgency many of her peers have taken an entire catalog to develop.
Though Dacus is still in her early twenties, she has experienced a taste of the hardships life has to offer, and she utilizes her desire for reconciliation as fuel for songs. The aptly named Historian is a chronicle of an experience that is entirely her own, balancing spirited ruminations about mortality (“Pillar of Truth,” “Next of Kin”) with heartfelt tales of love lost (“Night Shift,” “Addictions”). Dacus swerves through cascading stages of withdrawal, often demonstrating how perspective on loss can drastically shift between verses. Her natural instinct to grief is to explore each contrasting response that her mind is gravitating toward. For Dacus, the end is inescapable, and so, even in her young age, she makes sure to leave nothing left unsaid.
On No Burden, Dacus’s approach to song construction was representative of her lyricism; she soberly cut straight to the bone, with a sparse orchestration that didn’t allow for excess. Here, she expands the set up, aided by producer and indie favorite John Congleton, working through her issues over clickety-clack drum beats you can bob your head to. The lush layers – even including a soulful horn section (“Addictions,” “Pillar of Truth”) and a gospel chorus (“Yours & Mine”) – organically blossom into boisterous statements, as well as work wonders for her established sound, and the crowded instrumentation in no way detracts from her biting wit and shape-shifting bellow. Still, there are refined moments of simple beauty, such as on the stunning, string-laden “Nonbeliever” and the opened-veined title track.
Historian finds Dacus skillfully flexing muscles she had yet to reveal on her debut. Whether it is a melodic love letter to Radiohead (“The Shell”), a smoky blues rocker (“Timefighter”), a twangy pop tune (“Yours & Mine”), or a hissing ethereal serpent (“Body to Flame”), she leaves her own mesmerizing stamp on each distinctive track. Dacus weaves in and out of genre lines, and her modest, wearied wail feels angelic regardless of its backing context.
Dacus had no intention of becoming a public figure, but following the word-of-mouth success of her debut, she is filled with anxiety at the prospect of assuming the role of rock star. Her second album shows her realizing that she has an attentive audience as she’s exposing herself, as well as dealing with the pressures of figuring out how to connect her pain with theirs. With “Historians,” the record’s bone-chilling closing track, Dacus mindfully analyzes her own cultural footprint, picking apart the ways in which even her most intimate image has been altered: ““If past you were to meet future me / Would you be holding me here and now?”
Historians in a comprehensively realized emotional journey, a purge of soured romance, of cluttered addictions, of unresolvable demons. When the smoke clears and catharsis engulfs us, we are simply left with hope. As she continues to explore her own artistic capabilities, Lucy Dacus is branching out in terms of creative awareness, basking in the contrast to be found in sonic diversity. There is so much detailed beauty to be found in this deeply vulnerable record. It’s damn near perfection.