Obviously, reflective songwriting has been ubiquitous for generations of musicians, but Dacus goes beyond just cataloging her happenings. She writes with an uncommon degree of self-awareness, recognizing the nuance in her encounters with death, heartbreak, faith and existentialism, and attempting to figure how they play into one another. Like historians who study the past to predict the future, the songs on Dacus’ new record, fittingly titled Historian, read as more than just cathartic releases, but like documents to reference as she works to better understand herself.
“A big question I ask on the album is, in the face of sadness and anxiety and loss, how can people live and make the best of life?” she said over the phone in mid-February. “I am always coming in and out of this headspace of: What’s going on? How should I live? How can I live to the fullest?”
Although she noted during our call that she’s currently removed from that headspace and feeling fulfilled, the two years since Dacus released her debut album No Burden have been challenging. The widespread acclaim of the record, a largely hushed yet occasionally emphatic effort that was carried by Dacus’ unwavering vocal delivery, rocketed her to indie prominence and landed her a deal with Matador Records—just about the best trajectory an artist who makes sincere rock music could ask for.
However, she also suffered the death of her grandmother, endured a difficult breakup and was met with a new set of expectations and concerns that come with being an admired musician on a big indie label. Compared to the mellow nature of No Burden, which Dacus says was written to be played solo, Historian is a turbulent rock record with a bevy of gigantic swells and lush arrangements that she says are “representative of the songs and their meanings.”
“The songs are a little more tumultuous innately. Content that is more frustrating or coming from a place of, I guess, anxiety, or the effort to get rid of anxiety… a lot of confusion. So the album has a lot of ups and downs.”
She wastes no time in introducing these dynamics, beginning the record with “Night Shift,” a six-and-a-half minute epic that boils steadily as a tense ballad before erupting into a fierce wall of distorted guitars that Dacus belts over. Practically every track on the record has some sort of glorious payoff, many of which feature dazzling horn, string and synth sections, “things that I didn’t think were possible with the making of No Burden,” she said. She also takes her voice to towering registers, hitting notes that most of her peers are physically incapable of, and, up until recently, even she was afraid to try.
“It feels really good to be loud,” she said. “I have more difficult melodies on this record. I get higher and I scream occasionally. It helps my confidence to have a band behind me that helps me get to that place where I can open up vocally.”
Aside from the immense refrain in “Night Shift,” there are apexes in “Yours and Mine” and “Body To Flame” where Dacus’ voice climbs upward in concurrence with the spiraling instrumentals, resulting in breathtaking moments of musical chemistry. “Pillar of Truth,” the record’s longest and penultimate track, is the most intense of them all. Churning and swirling with accents of bright horns and rolling drums, the song eventually peaks when Dacus wails the line, “if my throat can’t sing / then my soul screams out to you,” her voice tearing through the mix during the last four words with staggering fortitude.
Many of these gratifying climaxes are purposely included in the songs when Dacus comes to some sort of resolution or acceptance of her dilemmas. In “The Shell,” a song about an artist’s identity crisis, a sturdy guitar solo arrives after a few verses worth of lamentations on writer’s block and self-worth, seemingly washing away her anxieties so that by the end she can assuredly sing, “you don’t wanna be a creator, doesn’t mean that you’ve got nothing to say.”
“If you define yourself as an artist and you’re not making art, or you define yourself as a writer but you’re not really writing, who are you?” she said of the album’s theme. “Don’t make yourself make something. I guess I have wanted to hear that before, so I guess being able to write it and say it myself is encouraging because I need to take my own advice sometimes.”
The end of “Nonbeliever,” a song where Dacus comes to accept the complexities of faith, features a surge of lavish strings and huge choral harmonies that clash against a recording of a sermon from a Christian cult.
“It’s just this really hateful, judgemental, stringent sermon that puts a hard line between believers and non-believers,” she said. “I think that’s the reason that so many people get stressed out about their own status as a believer. [That] song is about dissecting from faith and home and expectations in general, and looking around and wondering if everyone else has it as figured out as it seems.”
However, despite all of the points throughout Historian where Dacus writes and sings her songs very deliberately, with careful consideration of what she’s saying and how she’s saying it, the record’s closing track, “Historian,” is both its quietest and most uncertain.
“The last song kind of breaks the rule that’s set up by the rest of the album, which is that I want people to see that I think hope is possible,” she says. “‘Historian’ is, even though you can intellectually say that everything is going to be OK, it doesn’t make pain less painful and it’s still... hard.”
Barely exceeding a hymnal murmur, Dacus concludes with the lines, “Was I most complete at the beginning or the bow? / If past you were to meet future me, would you be holding me here and now?” a chilling allusion to the ephemerality of life.
“I wrote it when I was feeling really happy in general about all my relationships in my life. I just had this moment of feeling really secure and then this switch flipped and I realized that I could lose it all,” she said.
“I wanted the end to be contemplative I wanted people to walk away still thinking about the record. Kind of something unresolved about it. No Burden is similar, it doesn’t really give you a big high five at the end,” she laughs. “It’s kind of like a dot dot dot.”
To question her own assuredness is a very human way to end a very human record. However, despite the thematic crux of her album resting on her sheer uncertainty, there is one thing she’s wholly sure of.
“I don’t think I’ve written any songs yet that I don’t agree with anymore, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t happen.”