Envision a vehicle skittering along an icy, rural highway under a full January moon. Operating on minimal sleep and maximum caffeine-intake, the spiritually fragile driver gazes upon rolling hills while Richmond, Virginia artist Lucy Dacus nonchalantly recalls a former relationship over lush guitar progressions. As this anonymous character harmonizes with Dacus, the vehicle — having encountered a patch of black ice — begins to uncontrollably veer towards the guardrail. “This is it,” thinks the listener for one instantaneous moment, before correcting the vehicle. Evidently stirred, though not utterly shaken, the (relatively) careless individual belts out the refrain to ‘Night Shift,’ the lead single from ‘Historian’, as Dacus shifts into overdrive. Sheer exhilaration throbs within the audience’s soul — and the record isn’t even out yet.
Upon an initial listen (over inadequate phone speakers), ‘Night Shift’ feels incommensurate with the rest of ‘Historian’. Indeed, this writer shudders whenever an immaculate first single doubles as an album’s opening track. Given the significant bonding between listener and single, it feels as though one inevitably faces a precipitous drop to above-average-but-not-sterling grooves when the remaining album drops; however, ‘Night Shift’ offers a meager portion of the emotional catharsis, lyrical delight, and musical nuance that pervades ‘Historian’.
Beneath the lurid introspection, one encounters bountiful wit throughout this release. “I’m a ghost / Walking in a boring dream / You are there / Talking and I’m not listening / I am busy doing nothing / And you’re rudely interrupting” croons Dacus at the outset of ‘The Shell’, whose bridge vaguely evokes Aerosmith’s ‘Livin’ on the Edge’. The floating, matter-of-fact delivery suggests a tongue-in-cheek verbal assault that never comes. Instead, Dacus reassures listeners “You don’t wanna be a creator / Doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say.” Whereas the oscillation between gritty and tender moments would collapse around lesser artists, Dacus maintains balance. Glistening synths further captivate audiences before the song trails off, having expressed all it aimed to say.
Channeling both Courtney Barnett and Angel Olsen, on ‘Next of Kin,’ the twenty-two-year-old captures Millennial ennui by proclaiming, “I am at peace with my death / I can go back to bed” whereas the lilting-meets-southern-Gothic-meets-cinematic ‘Body to Flame’ opens with, “Longing for your short hair to grow back to the way you like.” On ‘Historian’, a record whose accompanying strings, horns, keys, and industrial fuzz mingle to produce an overwhelmingly dense sonic experience, such a unadorned lyric might be overshadowed by Dacus‘s more regal pronunciations and arrangements. The stark vulnerability here, though, subtly complements the underlying soul-baring on ‘Historian’ that appears in various flavors. Nowhere is this intensity more evident than on climactic ‘Pillar of Truth’ as Dacus viscerally unleashes, “If my throat can’t sing / Then my soul / Screams out to you” for her deceased paternal grandmother while emphatic horns invoke a spiritual presence within audiences.
Displaying self-confidence in her growth, Dacus weaves (or, rather, knits) several tunes longer than four-and-a-half-minutes long. (In contrast, 2016’s ‘No Burden‘ only featured one such track.) Still, no track stays past its welcome. The upbeat ‘Addictions’ will certainly be a crowd-favourite whereas the elegant-yet-fierce ‘Nonbelievers’ features a distorted, transcendent vocal sample while ambient folk ‘Historians’ further emphasizes Dacus’s versatility. In any case, the bold transition delivers for Dacus; each track here contains subtle musical inflections that are almost unbelievable in their execution. Only her sophomore LP, ‘Historian’, with its myriad, sprawling textures, feels like a seasoned artist’s magnum opus — not a ten-track, forty-seven minute gem whose emotional resonance flirts with the sublime. ‘Grandeur’ is the only term worthy of describing one of 2018’s forerunners for album of the year.
The full track listing is …
01 Night Shift
03 The Shell
05 Yours and Mine
06 Body to Flame
08 Next of Kin
09 Pillar of Truth
‘Historian’ is out now via Matador.