Offering some hope for the rest of us, Lucy Dacus isn’t entirely sure what the world is going to make of her stellar sophomore album, Historian. The early reviews suggest that the Virginia singer-songwriter has made one of the great records of 2018, moving beyond the guitar-centred indie pop of 2016’s No Burden for a lusher, often almost orchestral sound. The deliciously drawled vocals and serrated guitars are still there, but they are fleshed out by cinematic violin and pizzicato cello (“Yours and Mine”) and springtime-in-Paris horn arrangements (“Body to Flame”).
Thanks in part to raves by Pitchfork, Paste, and Rolling Stone, the Matador-released outing has earned universal-acclaim honours on the aggregate-review site Metacritic. Dacus has hit the road for Historian wondering if the people that really matter—her fans—are going to embrace a record that’s as heavy as anything you’ll hear this year. Her concerns make sense when you consider that self-doubt, loss, anxiety, and mortality are frequent touchstones on the album’s 10 tracks.
“Every time someone says that they care about the record, I feel a little flutter of victory,” she says, speaking on her cellphone from a tour stop somewhere in the southern United States. “Because I care about it so much, I really hope that it translates. It feels like right now there’s a lot of attention on the record, and that makes sense because it just came out. But who knows how it will unfold from here. I really hope it’s one of those records that sticks with people.”
Dacus saw that recognition coming after No Burden got her pegged as a DIY breakout artist in 2016. Critics and indie-rock aficionados embraced songs that weren’t afraid to pull back the curtain on her personal life. It takes guts to come out and admit you aren’t the coolest kid at the lunch table, something the singer had no reservations about doing on No Burden numbers like “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”. (Sample lyrics: “Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the frontman/If not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.”)
Historian is even more personal, unflinchingly dealing with everything from dying relationships (“Night Shift”) to crippling anxiety (“Next of Kin”) to finding beauty in the sadness of death (“Pillar of Truth”).
With highly personal revelations like those come questions when it’s time to start meeting fans and dissecting lyrics in interviews. Dacus is prepared.
As lyrics like “I’m doing fine, trying to derail my one-track mind” prove, mental health is something she’s had to work on, and the singer openly acknowledges that her battle continues today. One of the great things about what she does for a living is that she has an outlet—something not everyone understands.
“I’m not a sad girl even though sadness is one of the things that I touch on. Negativity in general is one of the things that holds people back, and you have to see what’s holding you back to get away from it. But even though some people have called Historian sad, it’s not only sad, and I really wonder if that has something to do with the way some people approach listening. If they’re used to turning to music as a kind of catharsis because they are sad, it’s easier to focus on the sadness than to use the songs as a way to escape it.”
Her ultimate ambition for Historian, then, is that, no matter how bad things get, people realize there’s always a reason to hope things will get better.
“The content is not necessarily easy,” she admits of Historian. “I think in No Burden there was a lot of positivity on the record. I think Historian is ultimately a positive record, but I was a little bit worried about taking people into a dark world. I tried to do it with as much care as possible, but it’s not easy to ask people to think about death or loss or confusion. A lot of people want to escape from those things—especially with things the way they are today, with people trying to escape negativity. But you sometimes have to go into the darkness in order to see a way out.”
Lucy Dacus plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (March 27).