Lucy Dacus has every reason to feel confident — her 2016 album ‘No Burden’, released on a tiny Virginia-based DIY label, eventually got her signed to legendary indie label Matador — but maybe she’s still sorting through things. “Everybody else looks like they figured it out,” she sings on ‘Nonbeliever,’ the fourth track from her hefty, laboured-over second record and Matador debut, ‘Historian’. Out of context, this lyric appears as a lamentation of her own insecurities and confusions; in its proper context, though, it’s something entirely different. Spoken by the narrator of ‘Nonbeliever’ to her subject, the line instead says, Hey, you might not be that special for leaving the backwoods for the sprawl of a big city rife with culture, and you could’ve handled your departure more gracefully. It’s not the only time ‘Historian’’s words could fit any one listener’s specific situation like clothing that’s just a wee bit too tight; in fact, this flexibility is the album’s key charm. Even as Lucy deals with massive topics including death, hope, and major life transitions, she offers listeners entry points back into their own worlds, all while strengthening her already taut grip on rustling, soul-blemished rock.
As with this telling lyric from ‘Nonbeliever’, many of ‘Historian’’s most alluring lyrical moments accompany the album’s most alluring musical moments. Just as ‘Nonbeliever’ matches its climax with an attention-demanding expansion into Lucy harmonising with herself and amplifying the volume of her backing strings, ‘Addictions’ pairs a blood-stirring brass rush and further distorted guitars with her most laser-pointed bellowing of the song’s key line, “You’ve got addictions, too, it’s true.” This line is unforgettable both without context — perhaps everyone has their vices, let’s go easy on each other — and in its proper context, a close friendship managing to last even as one friend finds success touring the country. She really nails it on ‘Yours and Mine’, as its windswept intro charmingly crawls towards a slight tempo uptick via organ-bound, asserted country-rock: “For those of you who told me I should stay indoors/take care of you and yours.”
Although listeners looking for a “be yourself” anthem can interpret “Yours and Mine” this way, it’s actually about continuing to stand up for progressive causes as their opponents try to crush the resistance. Lucy’s uncanny ability to make global issues seem like the reliving of specific trauma is vital, not that her personal experiences never pop up. Across ‘Historian’’s seven-minute penultimate track, ‘Pillar of Truth’, she cripplingly eulogises her grandmother; bound to the song’s crescendo from a nearly a cappella dirge to a trumpet-wrapped rock-country anthem, her voice deftly shoulders the weighty refrain “I’m weak looking at you / a pillar of truth / turning to dust.” Another evidently personal moment is lead single and first track ‘Night Shift’, also about a loss, this time of a lover (“Am I a masochist/resisting urges to punch you in the teeth / call you a bitch and leave?” is a line for the ages). Its growth from a lonely remembrance to an overdriven, full-band stomper is appropriately empowering and cathartic.
Most of ‘Historian’’s songs similarly grow from restrained, inviting conversations into triumphant declarations, such as “The Shell,” on which Lucy begins as a phantom (“I’m a ghost”) and ends as a guide (“Put down the pen / don’t let it force your hand”). The song starts as a soft wash and gradually blossoms into an exultant sweep of piercing guitars and synths. It comes down for a bit at its end, the song’s path symbolic of ‘Historian’’s sound and message: there are serious issues we all need to tackle together, and there are serious issues we might prefer to tackle individually, and they all need to be properly heard, and there just might be calm at the end of the storm.