Review Summary: "I'll be your historian, and you'll be mine; and I'll fill pages of scribbled ink, hoping the words carry meaning"
Let me start this off with something really obvious: it’s very clear that Lucy Dacus is the odd man out (odd woman out?) from the rest of Boygenius. No, I’m not talking about her contributions to the group; rather, I’m talking about individual solo work. Oh sure, she has her share of maudlin folk expressions that could land her alongside the likes of other sadcore songstresses dominating the indie blogosphere today. But the real differences start appearing in her approach to more dynamic and bombastic tunes; the peppy drums start popping, the guitars begin wailing like we’re listening to a 70s cock rock band, Dacus begins to have a bluesy swagger to her voice, and… whew! It’s actually quite exciting just to describe Historian
, but that’s because describing it is still nothing like actually hearing it for the first time.
And yet, upon listening to the beginning of opener “Night Shift,” you may not even know what I’m talking about. What you’re greeted with is a low-key ballad that slowly trudges through relationship troubles with some questionable lyrical choices (“the first time I tasted somebody else’s spit/I had a coughing fit”), and indeed, the track seems like an odd choice for an opener. Granted, we’re already treated to some of the tricks in Dacus’ arsenal; clean, shimmering guitars fit perfectly with the crystal clear production, and the way she combines melancholic and euphoric melodies is quite admirable. But then that climax hits. The distortion crackles in the proverbial sky, and Dacus herself lets her voice soar into the clouds. The lyrics are still nothing extraordinary, but the singer gives so much weight to them that she’d might as well be singing the last lines she’ll ever belt out before she dies.
Thanks to moments like this, there’s a sense of conviction on Historian
that surpasses many of Dacus’ current indie rock/pop peers. A lot of indie artists (not all, mind) get caught up on a certain deadpan irony that flattens their emotional appeal - and Historian
does in fact partake in some of that - but for every moment that you visualize a blank, pokerfaced expression on Dacus’ face, a burst of unhinged sincerity will be right around the corner to offset it. For instance, “Next of Kin”’s verses feature punchy, to-the-point vocals that almost sound expressionless, but they’re greeted with that emotive and catchy-as-hell chorus that brings everything into context; the explosive guitar distortion that closes the song is icing on the cake. The entire album is a giant battle of contrasts, really. Just listen to the way that “Body to Flame” tries to juggle beautiful string arrangements with weird off-kilter guitar dissonance; just as the latter sounds poised to undermine the former, all it really does is create a little tension to keep you on your toes in a subtle way.
At the center of it all is still Lucy Dacus herself, who proves herself to be a woman of quite a few talents on Historian
. Not only is her vocal work great, but I don’t think enough attention has been paid to her incredibly proficient and emotive guitar playing. The light blues she sprinkles all over “Timefighter” has many shades of 90s-era Eric Clapton, and her warm leads are a wonderful way to compliment her sexy, sultry low register. Similar sentiments could be shared regarding “Yours and Mine,” which sets the same blues elements to a fun lowkey stomp that could lend itself to crowd participation during live shows. But really, the biggest highlight of Historian
is the mini epic “Pillar of Truth,” which is an utter masterpiece of build-ups and dynamic shifts. Once again, the guitar work is on point; Dacus’ playing ranges from indie pop balladry to blues hints to baroque pop touches, concluding with an incredible hard rock catharsis. Her voice is similarly impressive, even ending on a nice little scream at the climax as she hits an amazing emotional peak for the album.
With such variety and range, one could certainly make the accusation that Lucy Dacus is dipping her toes into too many pools at once, and it’s criticism I understand. Does she want to be a badass hard rock frontwoman? An indie pop singer-songwriter? A cathartic indie folk artist in the vein of her fellow Boygenius musicians? Still, the flipside is that she does all of these things really well
, so it’s somewhat difficult to fault her for overextending her reach. Considering her debut album was slightly lackluster and boring, it’s goddamn astonishing that she’s made so much growth in such a short time. Historian
is a lovely piece of work that unapologetically tells the world that Lucy Dacus is ready to be with the recent lineup of indie greats.