The cover of Lucy Dacus’s sophomore album depicts a character floating above the mountains with a giant speech bubble protruding from their mouth – as if the weight lifted from letting go of all of their suppressed thoughts and feelings has made them weightless. Dacus was just 21 years old when she released Historian, yet on it she arrives remarkably fully-formed; confronting some of the heaviest realities of the human condition with piercing and nuanced insight.
Historian can be seen as a concept album of sorts – confronting coming-of-age across 10 momentous tracks. Like her peers Taylor Swift and Snail Mail, Dacus isn’t afraid to confront the intense loves, heart-aches and, the many firsts of this period, but her focus is also broader; covering estranged parent-child relationships, religious alienation, grief and existential dread.
Historian contains two behemoths; opener “Night Shift” and the penultimate “Pillar of Truth”. The former is a 6-and-a-half-minute breakup epic with some of the most cutting put downs ever put to song (“In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers”). The latter is the LP’s emotional centerpiece – confronting the death of Dacus’s grandmother. The song moves between the second and first person with jarring ease; at one moment Dacus is looking at her grandmother, contemplating all she’s seen and her coming end. At another, she is her grandmother, staring down death and asking the Lord to prepare her for her “final hour”. “I tried to be / A second coming / And if I was / Nobody knew / If my throat can’t sing / Then my soul screams out to you” she exclaims at a shiver-inducing moment during the song’s second-half.
Most of the songs here, however, carry a more quiet revelatory power – “The Shell” dismisses torment as a necessity for artistry (“You don’t have to be sad to make something worth hearing”), “Nonbeliever” offers a second-person character-study of someone painfully cutting themselves off from their religious upbringing and moving to a big city, while our narrator – still in their humble hometown – wonders if they’ll ever hear from them again.
For an album that confronts the horrors of death, mortality and severed ties, Historian is never a drudge – and certainly never an admission of defeat. There’s an inherent sense of catharsis and victory that comes merely from attempting to navigate these realities – even if one never arrives at some emotional breakthrough. “I fought time / it won in a landslide”, Dacus decries in “Timefighter”, but immediately afterwards seems to find comfort in how small and insignificant each of us are on this earth (“I’m just as good as anybody / I’m just as bad as anybody”).
“Yours & Mine” is the closest thing Historian has to a victory lap. It begins with Dacus confessing her fear of pain, before describing a descent into chaos – that she says was inspired by her time protesting during the 2015 Baltimore protests. In a triumphant, surprisingly hooky chorus, she offers a simple but effective retort to anyone who’s ever told anyone else to stay in their place: “Take care of you and yours”, “But me and mine… We’ve got a long way to go”. It’s a bold statement of intent – to forge ahead and create the world you desire against the forces that be – and one that embodies the maxim of the late, great Maya Angelou; that “stepping onto a brand new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation which is not nurturing to the whole person”.
Best Tracks: “Night Shift”, “Addictions”, “Yours & Mine”, “Pillar of Truth”