Historian is one of the first truly great albums of 2018.
Lucy Dacus’ Historian is a heavy record, proving that things truly do get darker before the dawn. Throughout the course of the album’s sprawling 10-track song cycle, Dacus rides a series of emotional swells that only near the end offer some semblance of hope. Ruminating on life, death, love and loss – the perennial singer-songwriter favorites – she takes her already impressive songwriting skills to the next level, fleshing out her sound with an analog warmth and lived-in feel that allows these songs to live and breathe.
Starting small and building to an explosion of fuzzed-out guitar and mournful, wordless vocalizing, the six-and-a-half-minute opening track “Night Shift” quickly separates the emotionally weak from the strong. The latter will be wholly enamored from line one, and by the time she reaches the outro chorus of, “You’ve got a 9 to 5/ So I’ll take the night shift/ And I’ll never see you again/ If I can help it/ In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers” you’re pouring all of yourself out along with her yearning, keening vocals.
Nearly every song on Historian builds to a big, emotionally-wrought crescendo that virtually explodes over the entire track. “Addictions,” like “Night Shift,” starts small only to end on a 21st century Spectorian wave of guitars, horns, percussion and Dacus’ soaring voice. And while in lesser hands this would become formulaic and tired, Dacus and company remain engaging even when it’s painfully clear where the song is headed. In fact, this helps make each breakthrough all the more rewarding as tension comes to a head and the listener is ultimately afforded a truly cathartic release.
With “The Shell,” she explores a life perhaps not fully lived to its potential, in the process laying down a handful of stunning lyrical couplets atop the Rilo Kiley-esque minor key progression: “It’s a myth/ And now I see it clearly/ You don’t have to be sad/ To make something worth hearing/ Now I’m calm and I’m content/ One more burden off my back”; “You don’t want to be a creator/ Doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say/ Put down the pen, don’t let it force your hand”; “If the body and the life were two things that we could divide/ I’d deliver up my shell to be filled with somebody else.” Indeed, the whole album could well be nearly as emotionally impactful on the page as it is on record, such are Dacus’ skills as a writer.
While she’s already made abundantly clear her strength as a songwriter, she shows an equally impressive sense of melodicism. The sing-song nature of “Yours and Mine” tempers the otherwise depressing nature of the song (sample lyrics “We’ve got a long way to go before we get home/ ‘Cause this ain’t my home anymore”), making an impressive earworm that, with its call-and-response sections, offers up pure aural bliss. Add to that a searing, J. Mascis-inspired guitar solo and you’ve got something to behold.
That’s only the album’s halfway point! She continues on, expanding her sonic palette with muted trumpets, chamber strings and woozy, waltzing tempos that lend each track a looming sense of ill-at-ease. That each ultimately breaks into a massive wall of guitars, atop which Dacus’ unfettered alto soars, pushed to the front of the mix and centered right in the head of the listener. It’s tempting to explore each and every track on an individual, minute level, but this would ultimately take something away from the experience of listening to Historian as a whole – clearly the way in which it is meant to be consumed.
By the time you reach the seven-minute-plus epic that is the album’s true crowning achievement, “Pillar of Truth,” with its horn swells, pummeling bass and propulsive percussion, the darkness begins to give way slightly to a glimmer of hope and optimism. “…slowly sinking into darkness yet unknown/ But the fading light around me is full of faces who carry my name,” she sings as the song takes on a new tone that takes the album home with the close of the comparatively subdued, yet gloriously haunting “Historians.”
Where her first album, 2016’s breakthrough No Burden, was recorded in a mere 10 hours, this benefits from a greater amount of time and consideration in terms of arrangements. The finished product shows that an already impressive talent can ascend to the next level with enough time to create and unleash their vision fully formed. Dacus has said, “This is the album I needed to make,” seeing it as her definitive artistic statement. Were she to stop right here, she’d be content, and well she should be; this is such a strong follow-up statement that it renders even the slightest hint of the proverbial “sophomore slump” null and void. Historian is one of the first truly great albums of 2018.