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Words First: Lucy Dacus Gets Her Point Across On The Sweeping 'Historian'

Monday, 26 February 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Dustin Condren

Words first. That’s how Lucy Dacus sees it.

“Not everyone will listen to the lyrics intently,” she says. “I wish that they would. But even if they don’t, I still want them to enjoy it.” She’s discussing ‘Historian’, her second LP, and the ideas that add lingering power to its already heady mix of distorted guitars and sparkling melodies. “Words first,” she reiterates.   

Two years on from the release of her first album, the sprightly ‘No Burden’, Dacus has turned in a record that changes things entirely. It’s a hulking, confident beast that casts a long shadow over an accomplished predecessor. It is, even at this early stage, a contender for the year’s best indie-rock record.

In tandem with returning producer Collin Pastore and her live band, Dacus has retrofitted her sound with punchy horns, strings and slabs of noise to add the required weight and balance to words that she believes could come to define her as a writer. “This is the album I needed to make,” she said when announcing the record. “Everything after this is a bonus.”

‘Historian’ is about loss, but it’s also incontrovertibly about hope. Its songs take in death, crises of self, eroding belief systems and relationships that have ruptured, but there’s a postscript that says these all-consuming events and emotions will fade. On Night Shift, the album’s intense, six-and-a-half-minute opener, she sings: “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers, dedicated to new lovers.”

“It’s about looking past something and knowing that things will change, for better or worse,” Dacus says. “The intensity of something will recede into the background. For me that’s usually a comfort, even if it is a positive emotion. 

"It still feels good to know that change is a fact, and therefore hope has to be a fact. It’s proven time and time again that you get past whatever you’re in the middle of at a particular moment.”

‘Historian’ is certainly a time capsule of - or a postcard from - who Dacus is right now. Its hopes, fears and hurt are tied up in recent events both personally and politically. In a time of upheaval and near universal anxiety, she looks out from the eye of a shitstorm and says that things won’t stay this way forever.

On Yours & Mine, a song that traces its roots to her participation in last year’s Washington D.C. Women’s March, she sings: “For those of you who told me I should stay indoors, take care of you and yours. But me and mine, we’ve got a long way to go until we get home, ’cause this ain’t my home anymore.”

Nonbeliever, a song stitched together from three separate pieces that date back half a decade, tells us that we can step from the path laid out for us, leave home or skip out on our faith and do just fine. “Everybody else looks like they figured it out,” Dacus insists. But she knows they haven’t.

She posits that, because we’re all troubled by a similar itch, maybe we’re on the same page after all. It’s an attitude that accepts grey areas and complexity at a time when everything seems rigid and polarising.

“I do struggle with an inferiority complex occasionally, but I think I struggle with it less since I wrote that line,” she says. “Acknowledging that everyone feels that way is comforting. There are people at all ages of life that look around and feel isolated.

"They feel like they are still stumbling while everyone else is on solid ground. People come in and out of that security their whole lives, so I don’t let that feeling reign in my life. I know how universal it is. By merit of its universality, because everyone feels it, it’s null.”

‘Historian’ has a meticulous streak, but it’s not fussy. The focus on getting the message across is visible in its crisp, considered choices and the manner that its broader instrumental palette isn’t allowed to bleed across the lines. 

Pastore was presented with songs that had already been arranged by the band and, given the fact that he goes way back with Dacus, was able to quickly pick up the vocab. It took one week to record, which felt like a luxury. ‘No Burden’ was allowed a single day. “We know each other’s standards,” Dacus says. “We all know when the take happens.”

The final piece of the puzzle was added through the medium of a Twitter DM. John Congleton, a genre-hopping producer who’s built records with St. Vincent, Angel Olsen and many, many more artists, contacted Dacus to see about working together, eventually accepting mixing duties for ‘Historian’.

His take on the record doesn’t differ massively from Pastore’s initial edit, Dacus says, but it does bring out the grit beneath its fingernails and add some extra syrup to its sweet side. Where you can clearly see his influence is in the toning down of the reverb that coated Dacus’s vocals on ‘No Burden’.

“He kept me pretty dry in some parts and really weird in some parts,” she says. “He’s a really creative guy. His sensitivity was so successful. I want to be clear. I want the words at the forefront at all times. They hold the most meaning for me, as someone who sees themselves as a writer before a musician.

"John isn’t a fan of reverb, but Collin does a lot of reverb. It’s a very Nashville move to make. One of John’s first moves was to take the reverb down. The vocal’s pretty similar to how I sounded that day in the studio.”

‘Historian’ is a very big, ambitious album. It deals with weighty, intricate themes. It is, to borrow some hackneyed phrases, a statement, a line in the sand and a marker laid down by a young artist. But Dacus doesn’t seem to have much time for that sort of hyperbole or mythologising.

She makes it sound very simple, in fact. “If it’s not working as a song, it’s a failure,” she says. “If you’re not supplementing the meaning then you’re crushing it. That’s why we made the decisions we did: to highlight moments, or step back, or point to what they should listen to. I don’t know if it worked, but I’m crossing my fingers.”

‘Historian’ is out on March 2 through Matador.

Lucy Dacus Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu April 19 2018 - LEEDS Belgrave Music Hall
Fri April 20 2018 - GLASGOW Hug and Pint
Sat April 21 2018 - MANCHESTER Gulliver's
Sun April 22 2018 - BIRMINGHAM Hare And Hounds
Tue April 24 2018 - BRISTOL Louisiana
Wed April 25 2018 - LONDON Omeara
Thu April 26 2018 - BRIGHTON Hope & Ruin

Click here to compare & buy Lucy Dacus Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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