The Wistful Wisdom of Lucy Dacus

Like many adolescents with an appetite for angst and idealism, I documented my teenage years with a diary. My diary included confessional material such as grievances with my sisters, lamentations over crushes, and my frustrations about being a benchwarmer on the varsity soccer team. It would be nothing short of a nightmare to publicly share any of those dreary, sub-literary musings let alone turn them into an album. But singer songwriter Lucy Dacus has done just this. The result is her brilliant, evocative alt-rock memoir Home Video.

Home Video is a fervent recollection of Dacus’ years growing up as an evangelical Christian in Richmond, Virginia in the early 2000s. Right from the opening lines of the first track, Dacus beckons us into her world of subdued nostalgia as she sings “Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood in my pulsing veins / Heavy memories weighing on my brain / Hot and heavy in the basement of your parents’ place.”

It’s the opening track and we’re already in the basement of her teenage crush. But Dacus is just getting started, and it’s quickly apparent that she’s not just interested in pining after teenage romances. Home Video is less inspired by nostalgia than it is an effort to excavate and find a “home” for some of Dacus’ pivotal early memories. Many of the songs offer visceral snapshots of memories, from confusion over love and religion to fierce feelings of affection she carries for her friends. And Dacus’ ability to tell a good story makes many of these moments feel like they happened yesterday. As listeners, we’re drawn in, and can’t help feeling like we’re there too, dancing along with Dacus and a friend after midnight “at the five and dime.”

I first encountered Lucy Dacus in the six minutes of cutting lyrics and scorching guitar lines that makeup “Night Shift,” the first track on her 2018 album Historian. “Night Shift” alone was enough to convert me to Dacus’ visceral and yet ethereal style of indie rock. There is a surprising power in it, one that is apparent from the moment Dacus’ voice cuts into the track. Those dense vocals combined with her strong, compelling lyrics and steady, atmospheric guitar riffs are unlike anything you’ve heard from her twentysomething peers (many of whom are following Taylor Swift in the trend towards acoustic folk and Americana). As a life-long fan of alt-rock, I’m relieved that Dacus is adamant to stay in this lane (she’s too cool and smart to be anywhere else).

Home Video is Dacus’ third album, and she recalls a spectrum of childhood memories with wisdom you’d expect from someone much older than twenty-six. In ‘VBS,’ the album’s stand-out track, Dacus writes about attending an evangelical bible camp: “In the summer of ‘07 I was sure I’d go to heaven / But I was hedging my bets at VBS.” For those of us who also grew up attending summer bible camp, this song rings tinny and true like the bell for snack-time. “In the evening everybody went to worship and weep / Hands above our heads, reaching for God.” Memories of altar calls and fellow campers giving teary testimonies are difficult enough to navigate, but Dacus overlays them with her budding feelings for a fellow cabin mate. ‘VBS’ engages sexual confusion in the context of religious upbringing and is written as a dark love letter to a friend. The endearing lines “Your poetry was so bad / It took a lot not to laugh” take a raw and existential turn as Dacus sings “You said that I showed you the light / But all it did in the end / Was make the dark feel darker than before.”

But Dacus’ writing has a way of making the darkness accessible. Even in the chilling, stripped-down ballad ‘Thumbs.’ In ‘Thumbs,’ Dacus’ voice drifts along over a calm river of a synth as her lyrics reveal a near-psychotic sense of empathy for those close to her. The memory is of a day in college spent accompanying a friend to reconnect with her estranged father. Dacus confesses to her own unraveling over the course of the encounter and gradually admits to fantasies of murdering the man as she confesses “I would kill him / quick and easy / Your nails are digging / into my knee.” These lyrics are shocking and yet Dacus sings them tenderly because the song is about her love and concern for a friend. The effect is heart-rending.

Although Home Video is an attempt to rub against the rough shoulders of the past, the album is anything but abrasive. Dacus’ unabashed look into the angst and frustration of her adolescence is a reverent embrace of those earlier experiences that have continued to evolve with her. The album also succeeds because it is less fixated on the egoic voice of self-pity, often manifest in childhood memories, than it is on the songwriter’s intense affections for the people in her life. Dacus’ songwriting on the album is distinct because it seeks to “befriend” her childhood experiences from the vantage point of who she is now. In an interview with NPR, Dacus said that feeling this level of intense compassion did take some time. “Compassion is really easy from many steps away. Maybe what I felt in the heat of the moment was confusion, and I wanted to feel compassion; now, I actually can.”

This reflective distance is what lies at the heart of Home Video and accounts for its remarkable power. It’s an album that emits wisdom acquired closer to the end of one’s songwriting career, but let’s hope Lucy Dacus is nowhere near the end of hers.

Sara Krahn is the Editor of Rupert’s Land News. She is also a classical pianist and has vowed that one day she will learn to play the electric guitar.


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