Lucy Dacus & the arc of loss
words by tom johnson
photography by dustin condren
I finished a book this week, Miranda July’s “It Chooses You”, which is a collection of interviews with members of the public she found through Penny Saver – a print version of Craig’s list, essentially. It’s a beautiful book, weaving July’s own story through these little snapshots of people’s lives, from the weird to the weary and most, often unimaginable things in between, and of one those things that says something greater about, well, life as a whole I guess, by simply detailing the small, sometimes senseless parts of someone else’s existence; someone we don’t and never will know. The book reads like a catalogue of eccentricities, of sadnesses, of burdens many of us carry and the variety of ways in which they manifest themselves. That I found, and finished, this book at the same time as Lucy Dacus’ exceptional new record started to take a real hold on my own day-to-day felt meaningful, to me, somehow, in the way these things tend to do, usually without any defined reasoning.
Not that there aren’t parallels between the two. Historian, Dacus’ second record, and the follow-up to her slow-burning breakthrough album, No Burden, exudes that same sense of something grand and important forged from little details that might not have meant anything to anyone else if they weren’t framed in the line of a song; in the passage of a book. It’s a huge record, a stirring piece of work that walks us through her own life story, and all the hopes and fears and more, channelled through brash, heart-swelling songs, a marked and defined leap forward from her debut. Much like ‘It Chooses You’ this is a chronicle of things we miss and have missed, the cracks in the world we often don’t notice until they swallow us whole, huge and dramatic.
The foreword to Historian tell us this is the record that Dacus needed to make – a hyperbolic statement in most circumstances, but music has always been an funnel for such sentiments, a wild estuary of significance for those able to swim in it convincingly. “I have written songs that are intense and sometimes dark but get to the core of who I am and what I think about,” Dacus tells us from her home in Richmond, Virginia, a month or so ahead of the album’s full release, justifying that need in one swift sentence.
A powerfully personal journey, Historian is, chiefly, about death, but it’s also, more broadly, as such a subject deserves, also about how the notion of death manifests itself through so many aspects of our life, in ways that can also be meaningful in the face of morbid. “I don’t take this part of my life for granted,” she proffers, “I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to share music with an audience, so I thought, if this was my last chance, what would I choose to share with people. Thats why I chose these songs; they get in to something integral to who I am. It’s really heavy,” she quickly adds, “and I’m holding my breath to see how people respond to them, because it matters to me so much; so much more to me than the songs on No Burden.”
It’s not unusual for artists to pitch their new work as more important and significant than what they previously delivered. No musician is going to tell you not to bother, to stick to what you know, but you can really feel that sense of progression, of strict personal endeavour with Dacus’ new work, both when listening to the songs and listening to her talk about them – and that kind of passion can’t be faked. So, while this might be a new chapter, in many different ways, it’s also true to say that Dacus probably wouldn’t have arrived here without that record. Initially a low-key Bandcamp release via Egghunt Records, the record would lead to Dacus joining the legendary Matador Records, who would re-release the record later that same year – and who will also release Historian.
“For No Burden we didn’t know anybody would listen to it. We made it because I wanted to record the songs,” she states, plainly. “Now, with the second record, I knew people would hear it; I knew we had support behind it. I didn’t write the songs with that in mind but it does feel different to No Burden, which occasionally has depth but also there’s a song about having a crush on someone, one about gearing up to travel. There’s a lighter quality to those songs.”
Introduced by the six-minutes of the album’s opening track, Night Shift, that newly-shaped weight is immediately evident, the song coursing through its drawn-out run-time in a flurry of buzzy guitars and swelling atmosphere. As first-tasters go it was a bold choice, setting a bench-mark for all that follows, but one that perhaps resonates even greater in the context of the whole album – one that never shies away from the subject matter which inspired its creation.
“This album has a real focus on loss,” Dacus explains, before falling silent for a while, as if toying with the nature of that sentiment for the first time. “I’m a really, really hopeful person,” she says, as if turning a corner. “I believe hope is the most powerful force that humans can interact with. But the album is testing and doubting that hope; waiting to see if hope survives – and I think it does in the end.”
That glimpse of lightness is paramount to the record’s success. For every gut-churning leap in to the dark, the threat of which is seemingly always around, like we’re never quite aware of where the cliff edge is, the record always offers a counter-weight, an attempt to balance the scales, to lend a hand by which we can steady ourselves. And, in fact, for all of its delving in to our relationship with loss, Historian does certainly needle its way toward something hopeful, breeding optimism, both through Dacus’ own unique vision and her wider reflections of the world – not that she sees much of a difference between the two. “The wider state of the world is absolutely personal. I feel it very personally and so it comes out the way anything else might. It’s not separated at all,” she declares. “People talk about political songs being something different to personal songs and I never get that. Specific facets of the times we live in sneak through but these songs are more general than that,” she goes on to say. “They’re about feeling displaced from people, trying to understand power hunger, or this frenetic fervour centred around anger and fear; things I don’t personally access but I see so many people access to use as a weapon. I wrote about those things because they’re the kind of things that confuse me the most. I write as a way to tell myself what I think or try and give words to my amorphous thoughts.”
Dacus has had always had a unique way of shaping those amorphous thoughts in to something remarkably solid, however. She might see No Burden as a less-weighty counterpart but it still stands as a brilliant debut; from the spiralling Map On The Wall to the emphatic punch of its opener, I Don’t Wan’t To Be Funny Anymore. So, while No Burden has a strength of its own, it’s also true to say that it hindsight less somewhat less defined, more of a broad-ranging collection of songs than one cohesive piece of work – something that is often the way with debut records, but not something that Dacus repeats on Historian’s more established stature.
“There was a lightbulb moment where I realised the new songs I was writing had been sharing a theme,” she says of the new record. “I didn’t try to write on a theme but I noticed they were all centred around loss; making an effort to be strong – and succeeding and failing in that effort. It begins with a break-up and moves on to loss of identity; a loss of faith, and loss of other people – both your loved ones and yourself – and then it ends with death. So that’s a pretty intense arc,” she continues, with a laugh, “but it ends up saying that all of that is a part of life so you take it in and you shouldn’t let it weigh you down.”
Unfolding across ten powerful tracks, Historian is lent an even greater sense of grandiosity because of that aforementioned narrative arc, a lifeblood that binds every part of every song to each other; a map no longer pinned on the wall and pined for but lived in and explored, from her own eyes and others; from life to death and the myriad things wrapped up between those two funny little things; one sprawling story with a suitably empathetic final chapter. “I realised that the song ‘Historians‘, the final track, is the album’s epilogue, that it breaks the rule set up by the rest of the album,” Dacus explains. [The rule] says even though you can admit that life has to include pain – that it’s a foil to joy – it doesn’t mean that the pain is going to hurt less. It’s a little step back from the triumphant statement of the rest of the record.”
Not quite a title-track, due to the plural placed at the end, ‘Historians‘, the song, is a mesmerising departing wave, one that shines a different kind of light on the words and ways that came before it, like a sudden new thought that lingers for long after the album has departed:
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?
“I felt I needed to acknowledge that I’m one of the two historians in that song,” Dacus says of the song. “It’s a song about two people who are capturing each others lives, through words and experiences, and when one is gone the other person is going to be left with facets of who they were – through journals and photographs. So the song is entitled ‘Historians’,” she continues, “but then I named the album ‘Lucy Dacus – Historian’ as a way of putting myself directly in to the story and acknowledging that this is absolutely an album about me; that I’m not writing as a character, that it’s all very real and immediate to who I am.”
That potent closing track isn’t just an outlier because of its message, it’s also the one moment of pure stillness on the record; a soft, gazing eye reflecting back across all that led to it. “It’s a quiet, sombre question,” Dacus confirms. “And it’s a question coming from doubt, and anticipating loss. It was a quiet thought when I had it, and so it should be a quiet song.” It’s also a song that feels all the more quiet because of the track which precedes it, the momentous seven-minutes of ‘Pillar Of Truth’; the record’s penultimate chapter and perhaps the most formidable, singular piece of work on any Dacus release thus far.
“We actually tried to put that track on No Burden but it wasn’t good enough then,” Dacus says of ‘Pillar Of Truth’. “It’s about my grandmother and I wrote it while we were at her house in Mississippi; visiting her death bed, essentially. It’s a positive song and I have really positive associations with that time because I learned so much from her example and her strength and composure. Her sense of calm was unbelievable,” she continues, understandably lost in that quiet, inescapable power of remembrance. “Knowing she was going to die, and knowing all the people around her were afraid by that, she really took the reigns herself. She planned her own funeral; she found new piano teachers for her piano students; she just really met the challenge head-on. It’s something, of course, she’d never had to deal with before but it was like she was a seasoned professional! I really aspire to her level of composure when it comes to death because occasionally death just freaks me out so much,” Dacus admits, “but, having watched her, I feel like I don’t need to worry about it, it’s just something I’ll deal with it when it comes around.”
Gently telling the story of her Grandmother’s life, the song begins tenderly, Dacus’ beautiful voice above a soft, rolling guitar, before it reaches a peak and then simply allows itself to soars. “She was a southern baptist women, so there’s a lot of biblical imagery and some words lifted from some of her favourite hymns,” Dacus says of the song. “I don’t think she would have rocked out at the end because she was a petite and quiet woman! But I always felt of that whole, loud ending as being her ascent to heaven, and having the horns there makes it feel like a gospel choir. The song is heavy because the subject matter isn’t easy but it’s also like a breath of relief – just watching her, and being with her, and being a part of a really beautiful moment in her life.”
Its might just be because she’s still at the start of the whole album campaign but, listening to Dacus talk about Historian, it genuinely feels like she sees this as a momentous chapter and accomplishment, both in the context of her working life and on greater terms. Thoughts of death and loss have a way of doing that, and talking to Dacus reflect upon the record she’s made is akin to some deep and brooding conversation that would usually sprawl long in to the night, thoughts turned over and pulled apart, examined and re-examined, the kind that leaves you changed, from that point on, by the weight of it all.