Lucy Dacus – Historian

Um, wow. Not that making a great debut album is easy, but an artist’s sophomore outing has long been the notoriously tricky proposition, given its heightened expectations and compressed timeframe. Richmond’s Lucy Dacus handily cleared the first hurdle with 2016’s No Burden, a low-stakes affair recorded over two days with a newly convened band and a nearly nonexistent budget, turning those limitations into advantages on a remarkably human sounding record from a preternaturally mature 20-year-old.

Follow-up Historian is unquestionably bigger, both in resources and lyrical scope – it could easily have collapsed under its own weight. Instead, Dacus again finds ways to maximize the tools at her disposal. Little doubt is left after six-minute opener “Night Shift,” which begins as a confessional whisper and builds to a majestic payoff of buzzing guitars and a soaring wordless refrain that affirms Dacus’ vocal chops. She quickly follows with “Addictions,” the album’s most compact and polished track, trotting out a horn section that I suspect would make Yo La Tengo proud.

The unapologetic and mostly judicious use of additional instrumentation (strings, organ, horns) are the one telltale sign of a larger budget. Dacus reportedly had a false start on sessions in Portland before recording closer to home in Nashville with two of her key No Burden contributors, producer Collin Pastore and guitarist Jacob Blizard. However, Matador enlisted indie rock go-to studio maven John Congleton to ensure the mix was a tad more approachable for casual listeners. The outcome reminds me of the sort of artistic leap Sharon Van Etten made between Epic and Tramp.

After a basically impeccable first half, which also includes the insistent “Nonbeliever” and the more pensive “Yours and Mine,” Historian grows more heavy-handed on its back end. Dacus cops to being an inveterate journal keeper, a practice that undoubtedly enables her weighty themes and winning turns of phrase. It’s an asset when juxtaposed with complementary musical ideas; pairing them with strings and putting them to long form on “Body to Flame” and “Pillar of Truth” leads to overly ponderous but forgivable missteps on an expansive record.

“You don’t need to be sad to make something worth hearing,” Dacus posits on “The Shell,” yet another standout. Throughout Historian she sounds more thoughtful than sad (did I mention it’s a breakup album?) The “worth hearing” part is beyond question.

Lucy Dacus