Digging into personal history is not a new undertaking for Lucy Dacus. Historian, Dacus’ 2018 album (as well as Paste’s pick for the best of that year) and the follow-up to her 2016 debut No Burden, followed the end of a five-year relationship and the death of Dacus’ grandmother. She chronicled the split on “Night Shift,” which very well might be one of the best breakup songs ever written, and honored her late grandmother on “Pillar of Truth,” which—warning—has been known to induce ugly sobs. She did a magnificent job throughout the album knitting together her own sorrows and joy with our collective strife in 2018.
It’s clear on her third LP, Home Video (out June 25 on Matador), that the Virginia-born singer/songwriter wasn’t quite finished exploring her past and how it connects to the present. Throughout Home Video, Dacus revisits key scenes from and offers reflections on her childhood in Richmond, with the unexplainable perspective of not only someone who lived that childhood, but also—somehow—someone who witnessed it. First and foremost, Dacus is a storyteller. Home Video, recorded at Trace Horse Studio in Nashville, is just what you’d expect from such a talent. Here, her wise brand of rock music blooms into something even more palpable, relatable and beautifully messy.
Dacus picks up where “Nonbeliever,” a Historian standout about coming to grips with abandoning conventional Christianity, left off. She constructs an even wider stained glass window throughout Home Video, giving us more insight into her complicated relationship with religion. “In the summer of ‘07, I was sure I’d go to Heaven / but I was hedging my bets at VBS,” she sings on “VBS,” aka Vacation Bible School, which, if you grew up in the South, may conjure memories of laughably small paper cups spilling over with Country Time lemonade, popsicle stick crafts and resounding choruses of “We Are Marching In The Light of God.” The song is made complete with a mention of Slayer and homemade drugs, two taboo commodities at church camp.
Growing up in a strict lane of evangelism can be traumatizing for anyone, but it can especially hard on queer people, who as children are often led to believe their very existence is evil. Desire clashes with fear on “Triple Dog Dare,” where a crush translates to potential damnation in the eyes of two nervous young churchgoers: “Your lip was trembling when you said that we are cursed,” Dacus sings. “You’re trying not to cry / when you tell me you’re afraid that we may die.”
“Christine” also finds a young Dacus in the church’s orbit: “We’re coming home from a sermon saying how bent on evil we are,” she sings, addressing a friend (or perhaps a would-be someone more?) who is about to retreat into a possibly doomed relationship. And as any devoted friend should, Dacus offers to “throw my shoe at the altar” if it means saving her mate from ending up with “somebody who won’t make you happy.”
Mixed in with the religious retrospective are thoughtful snippets from past encounters with friends and partners. On “Cartwheel,” an intricate folk tune reminiscent of The Staves, Dacus watches future plans with a partner unfurl, closing the song with “The future isn’t worth its weight in gold / The future is a benevolent black hole.” “Thumbs,” meanwhile, is a revenge fantasy about killing off a friend’s dirtbag dad. That may sound grotesque, but the longtime live favorite among Dacus fans is actually more of a study in fierce friendship—the kind where holding hands is normal and protecting one another is second nature. “I would kill him if you let me,” Dacus offers. And on “Brando,” a delightful soft-rock jam, Dacus revisits a “dramatic friend” who “never knew me like you thought you did.”
“Going Going Gone,” which features Dacus’ boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker (who all have a steady habit of popping up on each other’s solo records) on backup vocals, recounts a high school fling complete with “locking lips and braces brackets.” But the song doesn’t stop at adolescent angst. Dacus indulges in a vivid environmental metaphor (“The sunset threw a tantrum / it wasn’t ready to go just yet / Mother Earth said, ‘time for bed’ / it resisted and the sky went red”), followed by a fit of laughter from Bridgers and Baker. The trio appears again on “Please Stay,” where Dacus pleads with a loved one who is sinking into a dark place.
Going home can get uncomfortable. The actual acts of exiting onto the interstate or hopping on a plane to see family may not be unpleasant—in fact, they are quite the opposite in the best cases—but the spiritual act of retracing one’s steps? Walking the halls of your high school, your childhood church, the streets of your small town, thinking deeply about your upbringing all the while? Those acts could elicit some discomfort. But rather than flee the unease, Dacus sits in it on Home Video. She writes every awkward rendezvous and heart-wrenching conversation alike using the sharpest of pens. She melds the nostalgia of a Springsteen track (see: “Hot & Heavy”) with her own knack for detail to forge an album that gracefully and truthfully faces the past.
Following a showstopper like Historian is never an easy task, even for a titan like Dacus, but she nevertheless answered the call—from both herself and her devoted listeners. You can hear in these songs that Dacus wrote them not just as inscriptions in a scrapbook spanning her whole life, but also for us. As on Historian, her history becomes ours on Home Video.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.