On Two Incredible 2018 Projects, Lucy Dacus Wrote Herself Into Music History

01.10.19 5 months ago

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Lucy Dacus’ “Night Shift” appeared on our critics poll songs list at No. 5. Check out the poll here and read our thoughts on the song and her current impact on culture.

Before I wrote about music, I was an archival researcher. Last fall, I spent 20 hours a week in the paper archives at my university, going through the artifacts and piecing together an argument, and I spent the spring organizing it into a coherent piece of writing. We often think of “history” as meaning something far-off and distant, but digging through archives of printed-out emails, scribbled notes, and typos made me realize something. History isn’t just the wars and presidents in books, or the lore of family stories. Petty arguments, work annoyances, the sting of a breakup — these leave traces and trails as well. Nothing is too small to deserve the attention of a well-trained historian.

Lucy Dacus took notes and catalogued all of 2018. Her second studio album, Historian, is a triumph of storytelling in beautifully rendered detail. Listening to Historian is a thrill of discovery — I’d say she’s a rock legend in the making, but honestly she’s already there.

The album’s opener, “Night Shift,” pieces together the shards from a broken relationship, weaving a tapestry of hurt and humor that establishes Dacus as one of the best songwriters working today. Each verse describes a different impossible post-breakup task — dealing with jealousy for your ex’s new lover, chiding them for not appreciating you enough, avoiding and rebuilding and taking the “night shift” so you don’t pass cross paths again. “Night Shift” starts slow and crackling, and reaches fiery catharsis by the end of its six and a half minutes. It’s the single most impressive song of 2018. I listened to it on repeat during my research, in awe of the accuracy of her documenting this feeling. It’s been a full year since “Night Shift” was released as a single, and its magic still hasn’t worn off.

But as stunning as “Night Shift” is as a standalone track, the rest of the album expands upon themes opened up in that first song. For much of Historian, Dacus doesn’t write about herself, per say — at least not in the viscerally, personally honest way that many rock critics ascribe to all female musicians. For a lot of the album, Dacus tells stories about other people. She nimbly shifts perspectives, writing from her own experience as a faithless daughter and imagining parallels with her father abandoning his hometown for the promise of a new life (“Nonbeliever”), ruminating on an unknowable friend (“Body To Flame”), and mythologizing her grandmother on her death bed (“Pillar Of Truth”). Dacus approaches her subjects with empathy. Like any good historian, she takes care not to impose a narrative and lets the details of the histories she’s recounting speak for themselves. On “Pillar Of Truth,” she imagines what her pious grandmother’s dying thoughts might be as she anticipates going to heaven: “If my throat can’t sing / Then my soul / Screams out to you!” The drums detonate, guitars wail, and we’re back to Dacus’ resonant voice.

Dacus is often unfairly lumped in conversation with other female rock artists who had massive breakouts in 2018. Dacus, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker have little in common apart from being talented young women who sing and play guitar — and despite what some people might tell you, that isn’t a new genre of music. These artists’ songwriting and musicianship deserve to stand on their own, and the differences in each of their unique voices deserve to be highlighted and written into music history.

A few months after the release of Historian, Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker announced a new supergroup collaboration, the cheekily named Boygenius. Each of the three musicians has her own signature to offer — Dacus the observant, wry alto, Baker the powerhouse introspective, and Bridgers’ unparalleled talent for distilling complicated feelings into devastating couplets. On Boygenius, each band member shines alone, but the EP’s best moments come when all three voices echo one another, refracting their individual words into a powerful collective. Recorded in three-part harmony on a single microphone, “Ketchum, ID” is absolutely stunning.

Me & My Dog,” which topped Uproxx’s list of the best songs of the year (and took the number one spot on my own ballot) is an earth-shattering heartbreaker. As Bridgers sings about watching herself fall in love, she imagines distance from the whole thing, and from her inevitable ruining of it. Even though she’s living it right now, she can’t keep herself from historicizing that experience, imagining herself on a spaceship, light years away from the heart she knew would break back on earth. The Boygenius EP is only six songs, but each of them is a revelation.

In both her solo work and Boygenius, Lucy Dacus is one of the most essential songwriters and performers of 2018. In the ten months since it came out, I must have listened to Historian about a hundred times, and the record has followed me through my diligent days in the archives to my insane new gig as a music writer. In her dedication to documenting experiences and emotions both guts-deep-personal and unknowable to herself, Dacus created an astounding collection of histories, establishing herself as one of the most thrilling, resonant voices in rock right now.

The irony of year-end wrap-ups like these is not lost on a historian like me. A whole year of music happened, but these write-ups historicize the most important parts, all the art we should remember in 2019 and beyond. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for finally covering indie rock by women this year, let’s immortalize the individual accomplishments of those boy geniuses and girls with guitars, and write their names down in music history. In 2018, Lucy Dacus made herself unforgettable.

Historian is out now via Matador Records. Get it here. Check out more results from the songs poll here and albums poll here.

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