Record albums aren’t novels. They aren’t films or plays or anything else that needs to follow the rules of traditional — or, for that matter, highly non-traditional — narratives. There is zero necessity for a compelling thesis statement or a grabber of an opening line. And yet.
Historian, the second full-length effort from singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus, begins thus: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit/ I had a coughing fit.” In the realm of great pop music about deeply wounded hearts — and what else is there, really? — we may have found the the equivalent of Colonel Aureliano Buendía before the firing squad, recollecting his introduction to frozen water. Like the tome referenced, the opening track, “Night Shift,” is a lovely, insightful epic. Across six-and-a-half-minutes, Dacus unfurls a painfully relatable tale of the sort of misery that settles in the bones, with the eventual passage of time the only viable respite (“In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers”).
Across the album, Dacus constructs songs that shift from spare to lushly full and back again, every tweak of tempo or volume enhancing the piercing emotions of her lyrics. Dacus has a low, velvet-smooth voice that coaxes nuance out of the words she pens. And she’s a crafty lyricist, settling on simple, telling details that immediately grab the attention, as on “Nonbeliever”: “You threw your books into the river/ Told your mom that you’re a nonbeliever/ She said she wasn’t surprised/ But that doesn’t make it okay.” The songs are an enticement to read to diary pages that were torn out and crumpled in despair, then smoothed back out and returned to the their places once the writer realized pain can be worth holding onto. Truth resides there.
Historian has a hint of the nineties-retro batter stirred into the most recent Waxahatchee album, and it reminds me of the raw nerve pop confessional found in the best Rilo Kiley songs. Comparisons could slight the originality of Dacus’s work here, though. The material on Historian is reminiscent of predecessors while consistently feeling entirely new, as if Dacus is the first person in quite some time to decide that a certain style of direct, plainspoken, warmly insightful pop-rock is worth grabbing a hold of and carrying a few paces forward. The quiet innovation is evident in the melodic swoon of “Body to Flame,” the gorgeous thunder of “Timefighter,” and the light seasoning of psychedelia in “The Shell.”
On the album’s last song, “Historians,” Dacus sings, “You said, ‘Don’t go changingI’ll rearrange to let you in/ And I’ll be your historian/ And you’ll be mine/ And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/ Hoping the words carry meaning.'” I can verify the words here carry meaning, almost more than anyone could be expected to bear. And that’s downright wondrous.