There is a reliance on instinct and a sense of ease that underpins the musical transitions and chemistry on Historian, the second full-length record from Virginia singer/songwriter, Lucy Dacus. The prevailing style is guitar-based indie rock, and it is comparable in some respects to Cat Power’s classic sound up to Jukebox (2008). Like Cat Power, there is also a thread of smokey blue-eyed soul that runs through Dacus’ voice and her melodies. But there is no grand leap into that style resembling, for example, anything like Cat Power’s songs with her Dirty Delta Blues Band. Rather on Historian it is a tendency and an undertone. So when it emerges unselfconsciously on “The Shell” or “Pillar of Truth” it feels like a smooth transition along a single creative tapestry.
One senses that this is an artist with vision and control over her musical and emotional material. “Night Shift” and “Pillar of Truth” exceed six minutes and unfold in an unhurried manner, building emotional tension carefully. The former breaks into its last verse with a crash of drums and distorted power chords that recalls 1990’s alt-rock, whereas the latter is a gentle elegy culminating in the only moment where Dacus’ voice breaks dramatically. The title track is nearly ambient in its arrangement. Throughout Historian there are horns, harmonized guitar parts, and electronic touches and all such decisions always feel essential.
The record’s musical cohesiveness also has the effect of highlighting its conceptual and thematic elements. Historian is about overcoming obstacles – bad relationships, writer’s block, grief, self-doubt. She has a deft touch for a turn of phrase and in her wit, both self-deprecating and acerbic, she is reminiscent of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse or Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf. “The first time I tasted someone else’s spit / I had a coughing fit” is a primer for opening a record on a note of amusing self-revelation. There are flashes of gallows humor (“I’m at peace with my death / I can go back to bed”) and in “Pillar of Truth”, a song that evinces straightforward sincerity around death and grieving, a surprising and poignant reference to Amazing Grace appears.
But while Historian is about overcoming obstacles, it is also not exactly about forgetting them. A historian is a chronicler, collector, and interpreter of events. Dacus has remarked that she took care in the sequencing of the tracks and the resulting order suggests a conceptual logic. The opening song, “Night Shift”, refers to techniques of avoidance and denial – “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.” But by the last song, “Historian”, she is wondering, “was I most complete at the beginning or the bow?”, and like a historian is taking on her experiences and holding them up in the light of time and perspective: “And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink / hoping the words carry meaning.”