Lucy Dacus’ History in the Making

On her sophomore album, Historian, the indie singer-songwriter shows she’s as thoughtful about following through as she is about openers.

Lucy Dacus.
Lucy Dacus.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images.

Big breaks in young musicians’ careers have a way of blowing craters in lives and relationships. If you’re 22-year-old Lucy Dacus, in the past two years you’ve seen your first album (recorded mainly because your friend needed a college project) turn into the object of a 20-label bidding war, and then quit your day job at a photo studio in Richmond, Virginia, to become the leader of a band on the road. No wonder it’s so common for a sophomore album to end up being a breakup record.

At first blush, then, the only unpredictable thing about the opening track of Dacus’ new Historian is what a pile driver of a breakup song it is. “Night Shift” begins, “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit/ I mistakenly called them by your name.” The verses then cover a frustrating make-nice coffee date, fantasies of punching the ex in the teeth, rearranging timetables so as to never risk running into each other (“You’ve got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift”—that is, a musician’s schedule), and finally a stone-cold wish that someday Dacus will be able to sing even this song without thinking of her ex at all.

The music builds up gradually from almost a stark spoken-word performance of irregularly paced (though never slack) melodic lines into a whole noisy rock group on the prowl. It’s as if with each step away from the relationship, her world is widening and populating itself anew, including with, in the lyrics’ final words, “new lovers.” It’s also notice that this will be a louder, fuller-band album than her first (including string and horn sections), as Dacus sets herself in between and apart from the current camps of torchy confessional songwriters such as her friend Julien Baker as well as the new wave of women-led punk acts like Sheer Mag and Soccer Mommy (who also released a strong return this week).

What is truly surprising, though, and shows the scope of Dacus’ promise, is that after that riveting six-minute setup, she already has the breakup theme nearly out of her system. Her knack with first tracks is like her gift for first lines; in the age of streaming, it’s a superpower to know how to freeze a listener’s finger before it clicks to another song. (Her debut, No Burden, began by announcing, “I don’t wanna be funny anymore,” over surging guitars, and how could you not hang around to find out why?) But she consistently comes out of her starting sprints into emotional marathons, along routes dense with foliage and incident.

Soon, Historian becomes a record not just about disruption and loss, but about how to live with the fact of death itself. Having exited the Southern Christian faith she was raised in (as sketched here in the song “Nonbeliever”), Dacus finds herself forging her own understated 21st-century branch of existentialism. If God and (as portrayed in one of the album’s most impressive set pieces) Dacus’ devout grandmother are both dead, where to go, physically and philosophically, from there? She communicates these conundrums musically, too. “Pillar of Truth” is first sparsely melancholic, hushed around the deathbed, but gradually rings more intensely with Southern-gospel echoes, with “Amazing Grace” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” At its peak, Dacus’ voice breaks for a second into a James Brown–style yelp, as if re-enacting the way that gospel became soul and R&B, that its sacred passions turned secular—while sounding a panicked cry over where that modernity may leave us when facing the void.

This preoccupation may seem odd from someone so early in her years, a young white woman coming from relative security and comfort, but for Dacus it is really about how to generate meaning. Like anyone in their early 20s, she has to decide how to act, who to be, all intensified by her new place under the spotlight. Thinking about death is a way of asking what, if anything, those choices add up to. In “Next of Kin,” kind of a prelude to “Pillar of Truth,” she sings, “I am at peace with my death,” and figures that means she’s free to “go back to bed.” In “Yours & Mine,” she tells worried friends and family who want to keep her close that she’s willing to risk getting hurt in order to do what may need to be done. (It was written about wanting to go to the street protests in Baltimore after the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.) And in the closing song, “Historians,” she sings to a friend or lover that she wishes she could know now how she’d ultimately measure up to her own best aspirations: “Was I most complete at the beginning, or the bow?/ If past you were to meet future me, would you be holding me here and now?” she concludes, in case you wondered whether she’s as deft with endings as with openings.

On No Burden, Dacus’ rounded, folky alto could sometimes bring out the too-precious side of the journallike lyrics (often based on the thousands of pages of notebooks she’s kept since middle school). It was the voice of a young person overly aware that people found her “wise beyond her years.” But here, without losing its sweetness, it’s gained flex and tension. It can be barbed or apologetic in exchanges directly addressed to ex-lovers and friends. In introspective passages, it can move from pained and fearful to hoarse and pissed off, melding with the guitar fuzz. But it can also hover at some distance from the instruments, taking on the cool authority to carry her existential queries. There’s an arresting point on the third track, “The Shell,” when she muses that if it were possible to divide the body from the self, “I’d deliver up my shell to be filled with somebody else”—and I can never decide if it’s the thought itself that’s so remarkable or the liquid, just out-of-reach manner in which her voice at once earnestly commits to it and casually tosses it away.

Historian was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, with more professional engineering and mixing (courtesy indie veteran John Congleton) and in a week rather than the day or so it took to do No Burden, but unlike a lot of new signees, Dacus largely stuck with her main collaborators, producer Collin Pastore and guitarist Jacob Blizard, both friends since high school. The arrangements range from frilly chamber pop to Zeppelin in waltz time on “Timefighter,” all held together (despite some clumsy bits) by that sense of a shared aesthetic. This concern for continuity and intimate connection links the sound to Dacus’ lyrics, which often puzzle over how to hold on to people and places while you’re changing, and allowing them to change as well.

It’s characteristic that she used her label windfall to purchase her own house in Richmond and that she decided to sign with the venerable indie Matador because it’s stood by artists such as Yo La Tengo for decades, through high attention and low. When Dacus calls herself a historian, it’s as an emotional archivist not only of her own life and insights but of an ongoing, interconnected web of people, a community both made and found. “Me and mine,” she sings, “we’ve got a long way to go/ Before we get home.” It reminds me very much of the collectivist way that Dacus’ contemporary Lorde wrote about her friends on last year’s Melodrama, another album by a bookish and ardent young songwriter in the aftermath of early success (though on quite another scale than Dacus’). Melodrama and Historian are close enough in sensibilities and structural intricacies that they could easily swap titles, though nearly as far apart musically as their home bases in New Zealand and Virginia.

It’s tempting to ask how their parallels reflect an age cohort that’s grown up with 24-hour social interconnection and an overabundance of data on the world’s mangled condition. As confident as they are in their own voices, and as unapologetic as they are in their opinions, they’re never reckless, arguably to their detriment. They’re always accountable, conscientious of collateral damage. Their songs also shift between scenes and points of view without warning, expecting listeners to keep up, and reiterate lines and images between tracks as if picking up subplots in an extended serial narrative—sometimes letting juxtaposition hint at the meaning, other times seeking a concise line to pass along a lesson learned or at least one being given a try. I’m not hurrying to any generalizations, but in the wilderness of emerging culture, it’s always worth scribbling a few field notes.

In any case, Dacus is an artist conscious that her history’s still in the making, yet doing her best to ensure she’ll be able to vouch for her current work to her own deathbed. She deserves the loan of some of your own fleeting time.

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic.