“The first time I tasted someone else's spit, I had a coughing fit,” begins Lucy Dacus on towering album opener “Night Shift,” a line that is so wryly self-deprecating it’s hard not to chuckle ruefully. And so it goes for the rest of Historian, an album that is equal parts intimate and epic. It's a collection of devastatingly personal songs set against some of the most bombastic rock production this side of peak Muse. Through it all, Lucy Dacus reigns absolutely supreme, fully realizing her potential on an album that I fully expect to be counted among the year's best.
A singer-songwriter from Richmond Virginia, Lucy Dacus is still at the beginning of what looks to be a very promising career. Historian is just her second release to date, following 2016’s excellent No Burden. On that album, Dacus introduced herself as a charming, if not entirely reliable narrator of her own life. “Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the frontman. If not then I’ll be the biggest fan,” she sings on the lead single “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” in such a way that you can practically hear her winking at you through the stereo. Dacus’ middle-American influences are on full display on No Burden, and while you wouldn’t necessarily call it capital-c Country, there is certainly a fair bit of twang present. Though Historian may not be quite as personable as No Burden, it is just as personal, and far more ambitious in its execution.
Thematically, Historian is an album about loss, be it the loss of a relationship (“Night Shift”), a loved one (“Pillar of Truth”), or faith in one’s homeland (“Me and Mine”). The latter is a particular standout, an uplifting women’s-march anthem that stands apart from other post-Trump protest songs in the way that it is informed by its era, while not being specifically part of it. Though the album is often wistful, occasionally to the point of despair, it also showcases some old-school guitar heroics. Nowhere is this dichotomy more clear than “Timefighter,” which includes both the line “I fought time, it won in a landslide” and a minute-long guitar odyssey with some honest-to-god shredding.
The album has a tendency to repeat a pattern of starting songs soft, and slowly adding layers until it reaches a point of climax. It's unclear whether this is due to adherence to some formula or a just a really effective way to mix a song, but either way the extra attention paid to the production of this album is absolutely for its benefit. Strings, horns, and backing vocals abound on all tracks, but never in a way that is garish. This is Lucy’s album, and though it may be crowded with sounds, they don’t serve to overshadow or diminish her vocal performance.
Historian finds Lucy Dacus looking back, sorrowful for the things she’s lost, fearful of who she might be without them. It’s heavy album, expressed beautifully, absolutely worth pouring over and coming back to again and again. But it's important to remember the future isn’t all dark. After all, it includes (God willing) more new music from Lucy Dacus. May it come sooner rather than later!
For fans of: Julien Baker, Big Thief, The Staves, accidentally crying but it's fine it's fine
Our take: Intimate, emotional, and epic; masterful mixing; grand songs about simple things