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The feeling of pining for a faded time is embedded in the title of Lucy Dacus’ third album, Home Video. It’s fitting for a record that reflects on the 26-year-old’s youth, particularly the usual coming-of-age fodder about fumbling with outsized feelings of love, lust, and loss. “Hot blood in my pulsing veins / heavy memories weighing on my brain,” she sings on the opening track, “Hot & Heavy,” which nails the mix of nausea and nostalgia such remembrances tend to provoke.
But Home Video is also a signifier of movies, which might have been Dacus’ career path had she not emerged as one of the best songwriters of her generation. Before she was persuaded to make her 2016 debut, No Burden, by her friend and longtime collaborator Jacob Blizard — he’s still in the fold as a co-producer of Home Video — Dacus was a film school student. (She was apparently a devotee of Miranda July, among other directors.) But even as a musician, there’s a cinematic quality to her work. It’s just that she’s channeled those impulses into her songs, which tend to be highly visual narratives that unfold like tragicomic vignettes. On Home Video, these stories are grainy but tactile, in which even the fuzziest details culled from the past seem so real you can almost touch them.
Take the song “Thumbs,” which was legendary among Dacus’ fanbase as a concert staple long before it was slated for Home Video. The first-person lyric describes a friend who has just been contacted by her wayward father. The narrator tries to dissuade her from seeing this man, but when that fails she decides to tag along to their meeting instead.
So we meet him at a bar.
You were holding my hand hard.
He ordered rum and coke.
I can’t drink either anymore.
He hadn’t seen you since the fifth grade.
Now you’re nineteen and you’re 5’8”.
He said, “Honey, you sure look great.
Do you get the checks I send on your birthday?”
The money line (“I would kill him / if you let me”) comes next, but the power of “Thumbs” is that the threat feels almost unnecessary. It’s the details that Dacus carefully weaves together that makes the listener want to murder this guy. The bar rendezvous, the drink order, the glib question about the checks he sent on her birthday — you can picture exactly who the dad is based entirely on how Dacus chooses to describe him. It’s a perfect little film projecting inside your skull.
To use the parlance of her band Boygenius, Dacus is more low-key than Julien Baker, though that has less to do with her writing style than her voice, a smokey purr that has always sounded out of time, like a throwback to the torch singers of the early 20th century. She’s also less oblique than Phoebe Bridgers, whose penchant for droll one-liners and unexpected barbs tends to muddy rather than clarify the nutgrafs of her songs.
Dacus simply is the most natural and gifted storyteller of her cohort. Like any great writer, she hooks you with a grabby opening line. (From “VBS,” a sly depiction of her religious upbringing at vacation Bible school: “In the summer of ’07 / I was sure I’d go to heaven, but I was hedging my bets at VBS.”) And then, with a combination of naturalistic dialogue and some well-chosen details that build a small world, she manages to tell what feels like a complete narrative, even as she leaves enough unsaid to create the ambiguity required for infinite relistens.
This is the sort of songwriting that people like Bruce Springsteen, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, and Jason Isbell specialize in. Lucy Dacus is the latest to master it.
If her album titles are any indication, Dacus is a self-aware self-chronicler. Her previous album, 2018’s Historian, similarly nodded at her reflexive tendencies. But while Historian was an album of songs about life in her early 20s, Home Video is an origin story. And it’s right on time for a person now on the doorstep of her late 20s, a time when you are just far enough from adolescence to romanticize it, but not so far that you can’t still access the feelings you had then.
Dacus either has a fine-tuned memory or the imagination to fill in the blanks with authentic inventions. Either way, her songs come alive with vividly drawn scenes. Or, should I say, vividly drawn mundane scenes. What Home Video captures best about being teenager is how life-changing events can occur amid the extreme boredom of being stuck in an unglamorous town just because you happen to be young and experiencing certain feelings and situations for the first time. It’s not so much that young people have extraordinary lives; it’s that being young makes everything seem extraordinary.
One reason Dacus has bristled at being labeled a “sad girl,” I suspect, is because it underplays how funny her songs often are. If there is a melancholy edge to Home Video, it’s a sadness that’s reminiscent of an episode of Freaks & Geeks, in which the pathos is balanced with an appreciation for the absurdity of childhood. In “Brando,” two pals skip school and proceed to have an adventure by … doing not much at all: “They play oldies in the afternoon / for the elderly and me and you / Fred and Ginger, black and white / I watch you watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.'” In “Going, Going, Gone,” a flirtation turns into a romance marked by “sweaty palms” and “averted eyes” and uncertainty about whether it’s an actual relationship. In “Partner In Crime,” a girl dating an older man is dropped off on the curb around the corner from her house “so nobody sees you / You drop a hint that you got a girlfriend / I try my best to take it.”
Dacus’ strengths as a lyricist have tended to outpace the music on her records, but on Home Video she has all but closed that gap. The urgent, rock-oriented arrangements use the Historian standout “Night Shift” as a starting point, tilting Dacus’ thoughtful, diaristic writing in a bolder, near-anthemic direction. But it’s the stories on Home Video that ultimately stick the most with you. As the narrator, Dacus doesn’t play these songs for cheap melodrama or gooey sentimentality. She honors the original emotional intensity that these stories had at their source, while imbuing them with the perspective of a person who has moved well beyond them toward something resembling wisdom.
Home Video is out 6/25 via Matador. Get it here.