There aren’t any weird wrinkles, turns or self-destructive narratives weaved into Lucy Dacus’ life story, and there certainly won’t be a rock documentary or autobiography about the trials and tribulations of the Richmond, Virginia songwriter.
“I want to be a grounded, healthy lifestyle kind of artist. I want that to be celebrated,” Dacus, who turned 24 on Thursday, told CL in a February interview. “I think that people, unfortunately, feel like they’re going to be boring if they don’t have a crazy story, but I really value journalists who can make somebody’s story interesting without falling back on the lazy, airing of of personal trauma.”
You’d be forgiven, however, for hearing Dacus’ latest album and thinking that her life might include a little hand wringing. The 10-track effort is her second for Matador, the famed indie-imprint that cultivated Liz Phair, Neko Case and Sleater-Kinney. The label is still homebase of a Dacus favorite, Yo La Tengo, and it’s a fitting stable for her and other young luminaries like Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan and Dacus’ boygenius bandmate Julien Baker.
Historian, lauded by many critics and journalists as the best album of 2018, is weighty, but optimistic. It’s a simple, guitar-based effort that’s also tattooed with trumpet, trombone, cello, viola and violin; roughly two dozen names are listed in the credits for Historian, while about half-a-dozen appear on her 2016 debut for Egg Hunt Records, No Burden (re-released by Matador later that year). Sprawling album highlight, “Pillar of Truth,” is a deathbed meditation about her grandmother and another apogee, “Night Shift,” builds dramatically as it draws hope from the necessary dissolution of a pestilential partnership. All of Historian’s 40 minutes are adorned with a pristine, unmistakable, vocal that can heal, but apparently harm, too.
“I feel like I might be entering that territory,” Dacus said, describing the pain or embarrassment that “Night Shift” may have brought her ex and their family. Dacus owns the fact that she was incredibly damaged by the romance, too, but she needed to write the song and will deal with the conundrums that come with pointed songwriting that’s evolving to include more characters that she still talks to all the time.
“Is it worth the solace of expressing something that a lot of people need words for, and that I need words for, at the expense of the specific person that it’s about feeling exposed?,” Dacus asks. “I am still kind of figuring out what the balance is there.”
Yet she continues to push forward. In February, Dacus had just released a cover of “La Vie en Rose” and was nervous about the opening line of a forthcoming original from her 2019 holiday singles series. “My Mother & I,” released late last month, is Mother’s Day track that’s an ode to the Taurean mode. It is a soul-searching lullaby of sorts and a straight ahead reflection of body image in the context of how our shapes — and the insecurities that come along with them — are handed down generationally. At the time, Dacus was unafraid to think out loud about her relationships with both her adopted mom and birth mother who she’s gotten to know recently.
“The three of us have spent time together and it’s a really wonderful relationship — all separately and together,” she said. “They’re just really wonderful women who’ve contributed so much to my existence.”
She that said the song is about an amalgamation of both her moms. On it, Dacus sings, “My mother hates her body. We share the same outline. She swears that she loves mine. I blur at the edges. I’m all soft shapes and lines, shapeshifting all the time.”
“Being adopted has encouraged me to consider what mothers pass on through blood and body, and what they impart in the way of socialization and context,” Dacus said, more succinctly, in a press release accompanying the new single. “We — daughters, and all children — easily inherit the shame and fear of our mothers, but also the pride, self-assurance, and lessons of love.”
See? It’s heavy.
But Dacus’ thoughtful lyrics and careful compositions come served with a helping of normcore, pseudo side-eyed sarcasm, usually dished out, flash-fiction style, on Twitter and occasionally in a song like No Burden’s “Map On A Wall,” where Dacus again sings candidly about a crooked smile, crowded teeth, pigeon feet and knobby knees before landing at the conclusion that she’s happy to just “live fearlessly, running wild beneath the trees, above a ground that’s solid at the core.”
Fans might even find Dacus strolling beneath the Ybor oaks and admiring the district’s one-of-a-kind street fowl when she arrives to play Crowbar alongside Athens rock band Mothers. Walks are the number one way for Dacus to stumble upon a song, and as she regretfully admits in “Map On A Wall,” Dacus is built for the kind of heat that’s usually in the Florida air this time of year.
“I’m actually, more accurately, built for humidity. I feel like whenever I’m in humidity, I’m just really feeling happy,” Dacus said. The moisture in the air makes it easier to sing, but her bandmates make fun of her because her skin just cracks whenever she’s north of the Mason-Dixon line.
“I just fall apart. It’s just too dry,” she joked. “But I can handle the heat. I’m good.”
That’s good, because ears are tuned to the young songwriter with a gift for making the nuances of sadness feel sanguine, too. The skill might be Dacus’ gift from the stars, or maybe it’s something more boring than that. Regardless, it’s still bold, bullish and beautiful in its own subtle way.