by Mia Hughes
A universal gutpunch: Home Video’s smart, warm, funny lamentations show Lucy Dacus in full bloom
Home Video might just take you by surprise. Whether it’s the heartbreak you’re going through right now or the one you went through ten years ago, you best hold on to it tight, because Home Video is like a pickpocket. It’ll sneak its hand in, undo all the stitching you got it sealed up with, and you won’t know a thing until your heart is ballooning, tears are pricking your eyes and you’re picturing it all over again like a movie scene.
This is Lucy Dacus’ third album, and it feels like something of a make-or-break moment for her. It’s the follow-up to her breakout album, 2018’s Historian; it’s that moment where she sheds the up-and-coming artist tag and establishes her place beyond that. It helped, but probably also heaped on the pressure, that in 2018 she entered wider recognition as a member of Boygenius alongside Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker – themselves still early in their careers, but already possessing formidable reputations. People might be inclined to compare Dacus to Bridgers, though their similarities in sound are fairly superficial. It’s mostly only worth mentioning because Bridgers’ massive breakout success of late sets a template for what singer-songwriter indie rock can still achieve commercially in 2021, and Dacus could very easily ride a similar wave. All that in mind, Home Video is where she sticks the landing – and she really does stick the landing!
Recorded with her longtime production collaborators, Jacob Blizard and Collin Pastore, together they’ve definitely expanded their approach. Dacus has voiced resistance to the sexist, reductive ‘sad girl’ label, crediting her experience in Boygenius with giving her the confidence to do so. Perhaps as a mark of that confidence, she’s exploring much deeper and richer pastures than her previous straightforward guitar rock – no longer feeling the need to slot herself into one pigeonhole to avoid another. When Home Video’s opener, Hot & Heavy, kicks in, the production feels bigger and smoother than before, and Dacus has maybe even introduced some new Springsteenian tendencies to her writing. It works incredibly well. Elsewhere, she’s on piano or acoustic guitar or synths, all adding a new variety to her palette. The biggest and best surprise musically is Partner In Crime. Dacus sings with T-Pain style Autotune, and her melodies tap into immaculate sad-pop pathos, adding up to one of the record’s most memorable songs.
Still, most of the time, Dacus’ compositions are subtle; they tend to serve more as vehicles for her lyrics, which on this album are brilliant and often heartbreaking. It’s called Home Video because Dacus is revisiting her adolescence across each song – placing herself back in various long-gone relationships. Some aren’t too taxing; on Going Gone Gone she relishes in the innocence of teenage flirtation, and on Brando she rolls her eyes at a pretentious boy who tries to win her over with tiresome movie references. (That said, there is a touch of hurt on the chorus, where she sums up the sting of being idealised: ‘All I need for you to admit is that you never knew me like you thought you did’).
But others are still imbued with the enormous, all-encompassing, desperately confusing emotions of adolescence. Dacus grew up religious and queer, and that makes a faultline that snakes underneath much of the album. It’s no coincidence that Christine begins with Dacus and the titular friend on their way home from a sermon, ‘saying how bent on evil we are’. Christine’s boyfriend isn’t good enough for her, we learn, and though it’s not clear whether Dacus’s love for Christine is platonic or romantic, it’s deep enough for her to proclaim that she’d throw a shoe at the altar if the couple ever got married. It’s deep enough for her to imagine that Christine’s future child would be ‘the first to never hurt another’. There’s echoes of these sentiments on Cartwheel, where Dacus collapses in betrayal upon learning a friend has lost her virginity to a high school soccer player. On so many of these songs, Dacus feels love that stings and aches, but perhaps the teenage her who narrates is too scared and confused, and convinced she’s bent on evil to name the reason why.
Amongst all this inner turbulence, though, there is a burning compassion for those she loves. She feels it for Christine, who deserves better; she feels it for a tortured soul at Bible Camp in VBS. And in its most violent form, she feels it on Thumbs, where she meets a friend or a partner’s no-good father. ‘I love your eyes, and he has them,’ she seethes, and this makes her fantasise about pressing her thumbs to his irises and just popping them out. ‘I would kill him if you let me’, she swears. It’s an anger that’s beautiful in its ugliness – tender in its violence. It’s the album’s most touching song, and it’s been a fan favourite ever since Dacus started performing it live pre-release for good reason.
On Triple Dog Dare, the epic seven-minute closing track, Dacus tells a queer love story that never got to be a love story – ‘I never touched you how I wanted to,’ she laments. The subject’s mother reads Dacus’ palm, and subsequently won’t allow this friend to stay the night anymore. ‘How did they betray me?’ Dacus asks of her hands – the ones that can’t touch the person they want to touch. The song builds gradually over those seven minutes to an epic payoff – a squalling guitar solo that encompasses all of her warring emotions, shame and love and fear and yearning; finally, in one great storm, she’s letting them all go – something she never could do back then.
Though the album looks back at the past, it isn’t really about nostalgia, hence why Dacus narrates as if possessed by that teenage self all over again rather than as a spectator positioned safely in the future. And though it revisits specific relationships, it also isn’t just about those relationships, or just about Dacus. It’s about love, nearly every form of it; tender, harsh, romantic, platonic, for another, or for oneself. The close-to-the-surface intensity of adolescence is the most potent form in which to explore it, but it’s always there to be felt. Its universality is expertly hidden, hence why it’s such a gut punch. As a songwriter, Dacus is a wonderful vessel for all of this, smart and warm and funny enough to concentrate its resonance into a focused laser beam. She’s in full bloom now, and it’s impressive to behold.
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