Stories We Tell: Myths and memories from Lucy Dacus, Neko Case

historian

On “Nonbeliever,” one of the 10 generously detailed and finely chiseled songs on her second album Historian, Lucy Dacus renounces the faith of her parents: “You threw your books into the river/ Told your mom that you’re a non-believer.” On a later song, “Pillar of Truth,” she sings from the perspective of her ailing grandmother, offering a deathbed prayer: “Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do.” It’s a trick of time and a gift of perspective that allows Dacus to connect the dots between these two stray lines of dialogue, turning a set of personal reflections into a more complicated story that spans generations, allowing small reckonings with faith and doubt to suggest a more expansive interrogation of loss, inheritance, and belonging.

It’s that sort of narrative sculpting that Historian is concerned with; this is an album about how we are all our own chroniclers and biographers, seeking resonance in the stories we tell, the organization we impose on our lives and our crossed paths. The songs are all about the benefit of hindsight; opener “Night Shift,” majestic and confessional, uses romantic dissolution as its premise, but Dacus is almost more concerned with how she’ll deal with the love songs she wrote, how the meaning of these relics will change with time and experience. (“In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers.”) The almost-title track “Historians,” performed as a string-swept denouement, goes beyond self-mythologizing, wondering about the role we can play in telling one another’s stories: “I’ll be your historian/ And you’ll be mine/ And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/ Hoping the words carry meaning.” It’s storytelling as collaboration, and intimacy as a creative act.

Dacus is a miniaturist who gets the details right, something that yields her some pantheon-level opening lines (“The first time I tasted someone else’s spit/ I had a coughing fit”) and evocative snatches of conversation (“You talk like you don’t know/ the walls are thin”).  Over the course of Historian, those details form a patchwork mosaic—a portrait of the artist seeking meaning in disruptive loss, forging an identity that’s equally informed by genealogy and her own agency. She’s paired her pliable melodies to muscular rock arrangements that similarly balance little details with grand flourishes. Save for the final benediction, the entire album is played with the hum of electricity—as if to simulate the brain’s after-hours buzz, flitting between ideas when it ought to be getting some rest—and Dacus confidently leads her band through plenty of stomp and fuzz, minor-key strumming exploding into winding, cacophonous solos. Even in the din, these songs all sound immaculately formed, and Dacus tucks plenty of texture inside—peppy horns in “Addictions,” a lazy country ramble in “Yours & Mine,” both crawling blues and industrial grind in “Timefighter.”

The latter song also reveals Dacus’ gift for deadpan, her pithy summation of human mortality suggesting little point in trying to overcome it: “I fought time/ It won in a landslide.” Death comes up more than once on Historian, and on “Pillar of Truth” it’s the loss of her grandmother that makes the singer question all the things she thought were unshakable: “I’m looking at you/ a pillar of truth/ turning to dust.” Amidst crumbling certainties, Dacus seeks refuge in inherited memory: “Raised in the age of the milkman/ I can’t claim to understand.” She’s telling her grandmother’s story—and in a season of doubt, it aligns her to something transcendent and true.

She’s not the only songwriter who’s thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves and about each other. Hell-On is the first Neko Case album in five years, and the best yet at marrying her tall tales and florid prose to suitably wrinkled, knotty musical backing. She favors impressionistic metaphor and dense imagery to Dacus’ stark confessions, but much of her album is similarly concerned with human agency as exerted through storytelling. “Halls of Sarah” interrogates the blurry line between inspiration and exploitation, remembering all the women who’ve served as muses, only to have their lives cannibalized for art: “You see our poets do an odious business/ Loving womankind as lions love Christians.” Meanwhile, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a hazy and slanted autobiography that winds through memory and regret—diary entries and shaky reminiscences turned into personal legends.

Case made Hell-On with producer Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn, and John fame—an expert in literal bells and whistles who gives Case the most exquisitely detailed and lived-in production of her career, sounding at once dingy and ornate. She’s never sounded further from alt-country orthodoxy than she does on “Hell-On,” which opens with dancing marimba and clattering percussion that sound stolen from Tom Waits’ junkyard. Faded synths fray the edges of “Last Lion of Albion,” fueling the song’s sense of corrosion and decline. Even the liveliest moments feel well-worn: The sighing guitars on “Gumball Blue” make its power pop feel rust-covered, while handclap rhythms and girl group harmonies shake dust off of “Bad Luck.” But the record’s most leathery effect is the voice of Mark Lanegan, who brings a drifter’s uneasy gravitas to “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”

Finally, we have a Neko Case album that sounds as gnarled and immersive as her songwriting. And she rises to the occasion with some of the most supple, allusive writing of her career. Hell-On certainly packs some winningly skewed Neko-isms, from winking self-deprecation in “Bad Luck” (“trying to pass riddles as poetry”) to a succinct gesture at oppressive masculinity in “My Uncle’s Navy” (“bullies are not born, they’re pressed into a form”), but its biggest narrative coup is how it both broadens and deepens the vernacular Case has been building her entire career. Case opened her last album with a song about “fighting to be wild,” and the one before that with a comparison of desire to a runaway tornado; she’s drawn to the natural world in its savage beauty and alluring danger, and Hell-On is full of references to rivers and shorelines, wildlife and unfurled stars. In Case’s songs, nature is dangerous yet vulnerable, something to be feared and nurtured all at once. When Case tells us to “be careful of the natural world,” it’s both a request for tenderness but also a word of warning. “Halls of Sarah” paints a picture of appropriation and abuse: “Men build their industries around you/ Diverting rivers in your hair/ They’re looking for their own reflection/ You’re left to die of exposure, Sarah.” There is an ominous undercurrent throughout the record, a feeling that the delicate things will only endure our mistreatment of them for so long.

But is Case singing about nature as nature—or nature as femininity? There’s no reason it can’t be both, though recent profiles, documenting how Case’s own story has been hijacked by powerful men, suggest that there’s autobiography lurking not too far inside these dense images. In other words, she’s doing the same thing as Lucy Dacus—crafting a personal mythology as a way to cope with uncertainty and doubt. In the last song, “Pitch or Honey,” she sings: “I love you better when you’re wild/ Suits you better if I say so.” It’s a line that echoes back through her entire body of song—a reminder that she’s still following her narrative thread, still engaging us in the story of her life.

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