Diligent diarists have a secret weapon: an exclusive spyhole to the past, the view relatively unobscured. 26-year-old Lucy Dacus typed up thirteen of her teenage diaries, deploying their contents with unflinching vigour on her third album, ‘Home Video’.
That Dacus is an obsessive chronicler of events should come as no surprise: after all, the American indie songwriter’s previous album is called ‘Historian’ for a reason. Throughout ‘Home Video’, she possesses a historian’s detachment in her straight-up presentation of the past – and a historian’s frustration with the parts that can’t be pinned down: slippery emotion, misunderstandings and missed calls, the scratch and fade of broken-down communication.
Dacus recorded ‘Home Video’ in Nashville in the summer of 2019, but many of the tracks had been steadily coming into focus since the release of her 2016 debut album ‘No Burden’. She toured tirelessly in those years, both solo and with boygenius, the supergroup she plays in with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers.
Dacus eventually returned to her hometown of Richmond, Virginia – the setting of her diaries – to discover she’d outgrown the streets like a pair of childhood jeans. Newfound fame stopped her from slipping back into the comforts of home. “Now you’re a firecracker on a crowded street,” she sings on ‘Home Video’ opener ‘Hot & Heavy’. In search of her old identity, she rummaged further back into the past.
Songwriters will veil truth in ambiguity, sink fact in fictional murk, shroud reality in romanticised lines. Dacus wears her history on her sleeve. Plundering her diaries, and family home videos, the new record – stories of early love, unrequited love, queer love, platonic love, self-love, bad love – stays unclouded by hindsight, nostalgia, or present-day concerns. Purple prose flowers nowhere, yet despite their plain-spoken lines – “You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did” – these songs are as poetic as they come.
She begins ‘VBS’ (vacation bible school) like it’s a short story. “In the summer of ’07 I was sure I’d go to heaven, but I was hedging my bets at VBS,” she sings. “A preacher in a T-shirt told me I could be a leader / Taught me how to build a fire, and to spread the word.” Specific detail – nutmeg, peach pits, Slayer – root down the existential despair of a bible camp boyfriend, while angry teenage guitar bursts at the song’s seams.
Far from glitchy fuzz, ‘Home Video’s quietly polished production allows Dacus’ writing to breathe, elevating it in places. As a friendship is subsumed by a relationship on ‘Christine’, the song is subsumed by a final rush of air: a friend’s eternal love. ‘First Time’ skitters to its end like a tape unspooling. Long-time live favourite ‘Thumbs’, a fantasy murder ballad rooted in the truth of her friend’s abusive father, brandishes love at its fiercest via music at its sparsest and most hymnal.
Softer at the edges than previous albums, ‘Home Video’ makes more room for piano, synth, and acoustic guitar, amid Dacus’ trademark indie fuzz. Her vocals are unerringly clear – no shying away from these stories – even on the auto-tuned ‘Partners In Crime’, the only instance of warped Home Video light-leak. In this tale of an illicit encounter, the adult need to present a false version of yourself looms behind the teenage flutter of love-me-not petals.
Still, dishonest men are only a tiny bit worse than patronising boys. On ‘Brando’, Dacus goes to the afternoon movies with a condescending young date. “You think you’re Brando but you’ll never come close,” Dacus laughs. She’s not even interested in Brando, anyway, more concerned with real events than those on screen: “I watch you watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’”.
But maybe the sudden percussive burst before the devastating final verses of ‘Cartwheel’ – “betrayal like I’d never felt before”, a friend abandoned for “a soccer player at the senior high” – really serves as the record’s crux. Jolts of truth and ceaseless love propel ‘Home Video’, from queer longing to the love of friends who rise you up and hold you steady.
One track, ‘Going Going Gone’, ends with the jubilant, relieved cheers of Dacus and her friends – including Bridgers and Baker, who guest on a few tracks – a studio snapshot that shows Dacus hasn’t stopped documenting history. The past may be going, going, gone – but Lucy Dacus won’t disappear with it.