Lucy Dacus' 'No Burden' Features Strong Music About Weak Moments

Oct 4, 2016
Originally published on October 4, 2016 11:59 am
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KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Lucy Dacus is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Richmond, Va., whose debut album is called "No Burden." It's a collection that had a small independent release earlier this year, but now it's been reissued on Matador Records. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Dacus expresses a vulnerability that goes against the grain of much current pop music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE TORPEDO")

LUCY DACUS: (Singing) You got yourself a bunch of bad habits, not hard to see that love is a weakness. Seems to me the way you understand it is that you're never going to make it happen. I get smoke in my eyes every time I try to look you in the eye. And do I even know what your face looks like? It's just a cloud of smoke in its place. I'm trying to tell you something you might've heard before.

TUCKER: On that song called "Strange Torpedo," Lucy Dacus sings, I get tongue tied every time I try to tell you what I think is right. The music that surrounds that sentiment features a relentless hammering beat. The tension between the lyric and the melody implies that the reticence Dacus proclaims has been defeated by her wish to be as honest as she possibly can. At a time when pop culture is asking women to project power and assurance, Dacus takes back the right to project intimidation and worry. Listen to her litany of hesitations at the beginning of "Map On A Wall."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAP ON A WALL")

DACUS: (Singing) Oh, please, don't make fun of me, with my crooked smile and my crowded teeth or my pigeon feet or my knobby knees. Well, I got more problems than not. But I feel fine, and I made up my mind to live happily, feeling beautiful beneath the trees above a ground that's solid at the core.

TUCKER: While she begins that song with an abject plea - oh, please don't make fun of me - followed by a list of her perceived flaws, Dacus doesn't let the matter rest there. The music builds in intensity, a guitar chord strummed with increasing fierceness as Dacus's voice gains the force to be heard over the din. In the space of a few minutes, Lucy Dacus has demonstrated how admitting your fears offers a possibility of overcoming them. This leads to such striking compositions of forthrightness as one called "Direct Address."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRECT ADDRESS")

DACUS: (Singing) You know it's unfair that I am here and you are there. I feel short in the exchange. I show you mine, you walk away. I'm wearing mine out on my sleeve. You're wearing yours where I can't see. But I'll remember your face for years to come and wonder what you thought about when you got home. Honesty is like a kiss on the lips. Come closer and I'll tell you exactly how it is. And I'm barely breathing, I'm moving ahead. But if I see you smile, it's going to knock me dead. I'm stiff in my tracks, trying to recover from whatever drug you used to put me under.

TUCKER: Dacus composes song whose lyrics feature the plain-spoken language and intimacy of folk music buttress and propelled by rock music instrumentation. Listen to the way she tries on various moods and public images of herself in a jittery song like "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANNA BE FUNNY ANYMORE")

DACUS: (Singing) I don't want to be funny anymore. I don't want to be funny anymore. Lately, I've been feeling like the odd man out. I hurt my friends saying things I don't mean out loud. I don't want to be funny anymore. I got a too-short skirt, maybe I can be the cute one. Is there room in the band? I don't need to be the front man. If not, then I'll be the biggest fan.

TUCKER: The voice Dacus uses throughout this album "No Burden" is that of a relentless interrogator - of her memories, of herself, of you. Implicit in her songs is the question, have you ever felt this way, too? And like so many pop-music artists we can admire, she has an advantage we don't. She's able to make strong music about her weakest moments. She may say in one song here, I'll play the fool, but more often than not she's the stubborn master of the bleak scenarios she describes. Dacus is a master of her own destiny who likes to make you think she's as surprised as anyone else that she could possess such power.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the album "No Burden," the debut song collection by singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus.

Tomorrow is going to be a special day on FRESH AIR. My guest will be Bruce Springsteen. We just recorded the interview at his home studio in New Jersey. Springsteen has a new memoir called "Born To Run."

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Reading) I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.

GROSS: That's him reading from the book. We talked about growing up and the experiences that shaped his life and music. I hope you'll join us for an interview with Bruce Springsteen.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "TENTH AVENUE FREEZE OUT")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENTH AVENUE FREEZE OUT")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Teardrops on the city, Bad Scooter searching for his groove. Seem like the whole world walking pretty and you can't find room to move. Well, everybody better move over, that's all, 'cause I'm running on the bad side and I got my back to the wall. Tenth Avenue freeze-out. Tenth Avenue freeze-out. Well, I was stranded in the jungle, trying to take in all the heat they was giving till the night is dark but the sidewalk bright and lined with the light of the living. From a tenement window, a transistor blasts. Turn around the corner, things got real quiet real fast. I walked into a Tenth Avenue freeze-out. Tenth Avenue freeze-out. And I'm all alone, I'm all alone... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.