Review Summary: "I'm just as good as anybody / I'm just as bad as anybody"
Lucy Dacus is in over her head. She’s recently found herself among indie folk giants Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, both of whom have carved out respective niches in their genre that speak volumes of their personal struggles while maintaining a unique musical voice. While Dacus is clearly quite close with these musicians, one would be hard pressed to say she’s done the same, or nearly as effectively. What’s more, according to Dacus, this album is her defining statement as an artist.
“This is the album I needed to make. Everything after this is a bonus.”
As lovely as Historian
can be, it’s hard to imagine someone being so assured of it. Making a declaration such as this can be dangerous—turning it into something even more personal while at the same time putting an enormous amount of pressure on the work to deliver exactly what you want to your audience. This kind of notion can make even a good album like this one seem lackluster.
After all, this album is not a work of lyrical genius. Tracks like “The Shell” feel weirdly cloying for the genre. Rather than being emotionally open-hearted or vulnerable, her words almost conjure a Katy Perry song fed through a sadgirl indie cheese processor when she sings “You don’t wanna be a creator / Doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say.” These mawkish lines are sandwiched between eerie verses and a bridge with surprising power, none of which feel like they should exist hand-in-hand with each other. In fact, it really is these "sadgirl" influences that shoot themselves in the foot. Mid-album track “Yours & Mine” maintains a pleasant folky tone while bashing the same notes and lines over and over to the point of boredom.
In other instances, she’ll take her subdued landscapes deadly serious without convincing us that she’s even feeling what she’s singing. It feels like an act at times. Mundane one liners such as ”You got a 9-5 so, I’ll take the night shift" are repeated endlessly in an often unaffecting vocal performance. Even some of the most triumphant moments of the record are paralyzed by her husky, unchanging voice. It isn’t that she’s an untalented singer, it’s just that she rarely let’s it shine. It can be interesting and dynamic, but it rarely is. When she toys with it, it’s obvious that it’s not the voice itself that’s the problem, it’s the lack of a plan of what to do with it.
The whole album effuses a sense of comfort. Not in the audience, but in the performers. She never seems to be challenging herself emotionally, and only does she do something truly exciting musically. Nevertheless, these few moments of musical ingenuity prove to be the most memorable and impactful on the record. “Timefighter” soars above any other track here. It not only fits her voice painfully better than the rest of the album, but it acts as a rocketship of skyscraper sized guitars and bluesy, bassy thumps that grows surprisingly and naturally as it continues on, only solidifying the potential that Dacus hints at on this record. She has incredible guitar instincts when she actually shows them, and these blues-rock crunches are more believable than any of her teen-girl love-yourself lyrics, and they equally eclipse the constant splashes of horns and strings found on other tracks that often feel colorful but not quite true. These progressive and rocking inclinations that she showcases on this track and “Pillar of Truth” are far more promising than anything she attempts in the style of her close peers.
On the closer “Historians,” the album ends in a far better place than it begins. Her voice takes on an ageless, omniscient quality that was always lurking in the background. It suggests a wisdom beyond her years, an outsider looking in, and as she croons over mellow strings and subdued electronic blips, all of her promise shines through in these final moments.
On “Timefighter,” Dacus asks of us ”Will you remember me as I am now?" What I’m wondering is, ”Will she want us to?”
Believe me, I know how easy it is to look at a work of art you’ve just spent years crafting and decide that this is all that you want to say. But in doing so, she’s discounting everything that’s to come. It’s as if what she’s going to want say is ultimately less important to her than what she’s got to say now. But maybe that’s just how it’s got to be for everybody. If we endlessly thought of the future, we’d never be able to make peace with now. And that’s likely what Dacus has done with this album: she’s finished with her past so that she can look to the future. I just disagree with her that this is her definitive statement as an artist.
I think that’s yet to come.