Album Review: Lucy Dacus - 2019
A number of years ago, when I was much younger and took the reviews that Pitchfork published very seriously, and at times, very personally if they were not favorable toward and artist I really cared for, if I recall correctly, the site had not looked kindly upon Tiny Cities, the album comprised entirely of Modest Mouse covers from Mark Kozelek, released under his then, still novel, Sun Kil Moon moniker1.
Within the review, and really, the only thing that is stopping me from looking on the site to see if the review still exists or if it was purged at some point in the last 14 years (after Pitchfork was purchased) is that I don’t want to prove myself wrong with this memory that I have—that, within the review, whoever wrote it likened attempting to cover Modest Mouse to trying to wrestle a bear; it’s just something that shouldn’t be done.
The reason I bring this anecdote up, anyway, is because of the comparison between wrestling a bear, and covering a song.
Cover songs can, inherently, be very polarizing—they are either going to butcher the original; or, they take the original, and build off of it in a way that both pays homage, but also injects something new, and vibrant into it.
Rarely does an artist performing a cover make that song ‘their own’—I mean, this kind of thing happened regularly during the heyday of Motown Records, when a handful of artists would all perform the same song, with one version rising above the rest (e.g. Marvin Gaye’s take on “I Heard it Through The Grapevine”); and the only instance of this I can think of in recent memory is Johnny Cash’s more or less deathbed reflection on the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”2
Is covering an iconic song akin to wrestling a bear? Is it worth even trying to make a cover song ‘your own’? Or, do you just have fun with it, and walk that line between taking yourself somewhat seriously, and not taking yourself seriously at all?
I hesitate to call the aptly titled new EP from Lucy Dacus, 2019, a ‘victory lap’ of sorts for her, but since the release of her sophomore effort, Historians, in the spring of 2018, Dacus and her band have rarely stopped moving—they have toured relentlessly in support of it, and Dacus herself took part in the ‘supergroup’ Boygenius, with similarly minded artists Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.
Recorded over the course of a few years3, according to Dacus herself, 2019 collects all of the digital singles she had been releasing slowly since the beginning of 2019—usually on traditional holidays (like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day) and sometimes on ‘non-traditional holidays’ like Bruce Springsteen’s birthday; it includes three new, diverse originals alongside four very distinct covers—including the metaphorical bear she and her band wrestle with: an arrestingly earnest, surprisingly well executed take on “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.
The word ‘energetic’ doesn’t do justice to how brash and punky Dacus’ takes are on the other cover songs included, like “Dancing in The Dark,” Edith Piaf’s “LA Vie en rose,” and possibly more shocking than the inclusion of “In The Air Tonight,” is her spin through Wham’s “Last Christmas,” a song that, like “In The Air Tonight,” is incredibly iconic, and the idea of covering it—and covering it without being cloying and ironic—could also be considered similar to wrestling a bear.
I, more or less, blindly pre-ordered 2019 about a month ahead of its release date when a promotional email from Dacus’ label, Matador, came through on my phone—an email that also included a link to listen to the cover of “In The Air Tonight,” which was, truthfully, the first thing off of the EP I had listened to in its entirety.
I had obviously been aware of the slow roll out of Dacus’ singles, and the intent was to, apparently, always collect the singles, and release them on an EP at the end of the year. However, because of the way the digital age in music—specifically in the era of streaming music—has changed the way people listen and consume music, it’s also changed how artists choose to release material.
Writing about music means that I am more or less always tethered to a computer—sometimes, if I’m writing at home, and am able to listen to something while writing4, my hope is that I am able to use the actual stereo in my home—the thing I use to play vinyl LPs and compact discs and cassettes. But, because I am almost always connected to the computer, that is where an unfortunate amount of the music I listen to comes from—mostly things within my iTunes library5. I have yet to embrace streaming platforms like Spotify, or Apple Music—and I really try to avoid using YouTube as a means for listening to music.
With that being said, I wasn’t actively avoiding listening to Dacus’ digital singles, but I also, with even considering myself to be a fan, didn’t see myself able to sit down for the three or four minutes, at the computer, with a YouTube video playing, and would be able to really focus on the song, even with out getting into some kind of analysis of it for review purposes, because I’d more than likely also be doing something else while listening, like categorizing line items in our family budget, or checking my email.
On paper, an EP comprised of four covers (almost all of which you could call bold choices) as well as three new originals, may sound like a difficult task to pull off while leaving any sense of cohesion behind. Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, if you’re familiar at all with Dacus’ intelligent songwriting, even with only seven songs to work with, 2019 never feels cobbled or pieced together, or that this batch of tunes wasn’t meant to be experienced in this way, which I think speaks volumes of the kind of quality and effort put into each of them.
With the originals included in the set, you could argue that Dacus plays her hand almost right out of the gate with “Fool’s Gold,” which is, by far, the finest moment of the EP, and one of the most stirring, breathtaking songs Dacus has penned thus far into her career6. Musically, the arrangement benefits from the addition of twinkling piano, and the string flourishes of Camille Faulkner, who has played with Dacus’ Boygenius bandmates Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, and a rollicking, driving rhythm that bounces alongside with acoustic guitar string plucks—it sweeps and swoons like nothing else she’s written.
Dacus, though, is a lyricist who is wise beyond her years—still in her early 20s (same as Bridgers and Baker), she can turn a stark, beautiful, haunting phrase, conjuring wildly evocative, vivid imagery, which is what, word for word, “Fool’s Gold” is comprised of.
Recalling a disastrous New Year’s Eve party thrown by the protagonist—“I threw the party so I could stay put/You brought the bottle like a promise forgot,” Dacus sings in the song’s first verse, shortly after the song’s brutal opening line: “I drank the dregs of the champagne—warm, flat, coppery coins down my throat; I’m saving up for a rainy day, and I plan to spend it in one place.”
It’s the song’s refrain, though, that is perhaps the most evocative—“He’ll blame the alcohol, and you’ll blame the full moon. She’ll blame the fall of man, but I blame the part of you that can’t let up on the reigns; You’ve got life in a chokehold; you say that it’s all the same—all glittering fool’s gold.”
Dacus returns to this emotional territory with perhaps one of her most personal songs—as a songwriter, you can never tell where the lines between fact and fiction are, along with her ability to effortlessly work a feeling of ambiguity into a bulk of her lyrics. Released in conjunction with Mother’s Day, “My Mother and I,” is, as the title suggests, a slow simmering, heartbreaking meditation about her relationship with her mother.
“My mother hates her body—we share the same outline; she swears that she loves mine,” the song begins, and as it unfolds, it finds Dacus walking the very thin line between darkness and hope, using strong personal, spiritual, and astrological imagery to spin a delicate, and devastating tale.
Slightly less impactful on an emotional level, though possibly the most infectious of the original pieces on the EP, is “Forever Half Mast,” a song with a very thinly veiled metaphor for, at large, America as a whole, and being an American, as well as her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, which Dacus also reflected on in the song “Yours and Mine,” from Historians. “I didn’t choose this town—I can’t undo it now,” she sings pensively in the song’s twangy opening verse. “I try to love the beast, no matter what it thinks of me.”
But it’s the song’s refrain that sticks with you long after you’ve finished listening to 2019—both for just how catchy of a melody it is, but also, after it sets in just a little, the metaphorical and literal sense of it—“Yes you’re evil but you’re not that bad—you put out your palm more than the back of your hand.”
Structurally, spread across the vinyl edition of 2019, three of the four covers included—the three most audacious and daring covers to take on—arrive on the album’s second side, something that, as “In The Air Tonight” segued into “Last Christmas,” it prompted my wife to look up from the soup she was eating slowly, and say, “Wow, this is nothing but the hits.”
This decision, whether Dacus realized it or not, allows the mood of the latter half of 2019 to lighten slightly, as it’s able to shake off the serious tone from “Fool’s Gold” and “My Mother and I,” allowing itself to have a little fun with these covers.
“Dancing in The Dark” is a classic Springsteen track—from the warm washes of synth, to the smooth saxophone coda to the song provided by the late Clarence Clemmons, it arguably one of Springsteen’s smartest songs, dressing up a desperate lamentation on loneliness—written, allegedly, out of frustration during the sessions for Born in The U.S.A. while butting heads with the producer of the record over the need for a ‘hit single’ to be released in advance.
The Springsteen original burns slowly, and borderline sensually, but Dacus and her band remove that in their rollicking arrangement of the song—kick starting it with a chugging guitar riff, and injecting it with a huge energy that never lets up. It’s still in earnest—all of the covers on here are—but there’s a sense of fun, as well, which makes it incredibly enjoyable to here.
The same can be said for the bratty, punk rock posturing that Dacus takes on “Last Christmas.”
The iconic Wham track, originally written and recorded in 1984 and released as a double A side single, would eventually be tacked on as the last track on Wham’s last record, Music From The Edge of Heaven. Covered myriad times in the last 35 years, with varying degrees of success7, Dacus and her band go for broke and pack as much energy and exuberance as possible into an incredibly tight three minute running time.
The thing that really makes this version of “Last Christmas” work, and unique when compared to the other covers that have come and gone before it, is the playful, punky, and completely sincere Dacus is in her talk/sing delivery, landing somewhere between the brashness of a RiotGrrrrl and the saccharine charm of the original line up of The Pipettes.
Despite the fact that, at first glance, “In The Air Tonight” appears to be one of those songs that you should just leave alone, it, like “Last Christmas,” has been covered a number of times; a quick internet search tells me that Lorde, Chris Daughtry, Nonpoint, and Three Days Grace are among those who have tried.
Surprisingly, of all the bands to try, The Barenaked Ladies have also covered it—and perhaps they do a tasteful job of it, but I hesitate to open any of the YouTube links that came up in my search results.
In the press release issued the day 2019 was officially announced, and that “In The Air Tonight” was made available as a single, Dacus called the song one of the ‘spookiest bops of all time,’ and with that being said, she and her band stay incredibly close to the framework of Collins’ original, right down to the stuttering and trudging drum machine rhythm, the cavernous guitar howling, the ominous synthesizers, and even the processing on Dacus’ vocals leading up to the song’s explosive, legendary climactic moment.
And, much like seeing Collins and his band perform “In The Air Tonight” during his ‘Not Dead Yet’ tour last fall, even though you know that drum fill is coming, and you know exactly when it’s coming, even in this cover version, it never ceases to be one of the most exhilarating moments in popular music from the last 40 years.
Dacus, however, vocally never loses herself in the moment the way Collins did on the original, and the way he still does when performing it in concert today—shredding what remains of his voice in those final moments of the song; but her stoic reserve throughout the song, even after it explodes, still works, and in a way, helps create a new, icy level of tension that never really breaks.
There are times when an EP comprised of mostly covers, released after a wildly successful and critically acclaimed album, all while still preparing for another full-length effort, can feel a little phoned in, or disingenuous. At no point does 2019 feel that way at all—surprisingly cohesive, the material included here straddle the line of freewheeling, carefree fun, and stark reminders of who we are and what we may be trying to come to terms with or even outrun.
In a sense, much to my surprise, an EP—over half of it comprised of covers—winds up being an allegory for the human condition.
1- I know Mark Kozelek is a garbage person and has been for probably, like, his whole career, and his creative output over the last eight years has been trash and self-indulgent, but as hard as I try, I still love a bulk of the Red House Painters’ canon, and those first two Sun Kil Moon records of originals, and, despite how maligned it was, Tiny Cities. It’s a great autumn record.
2- The only other instance I can think of off hand is Ben Folds’ cover of the Dr. Dre song “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which my friend Mike Link was obsessed with in the spring of 2005, after it was released as a digital single. Shout to Mike. My guy.
3- This conflicts with what the liner notes for 2019 say—listing most of the songs as having been recorded in the fall of 2018 in two different sessions in Nashville.
4- It’s easier to do with instrumental music, and maybe it has something to do with the fact that I am getting older and my brain is, more than likely, not working the same way it used to, but it is harder than you think to listen to music with lyrics while I’m trying to focus on writing something.
5- I have yet to do any software updates on my ailing computer, and truthfully we probably need to get a new computer as soon as possible, but I know that ‘iTunes,’ as a thing, is gone now and replaced with some kind of variant of Apple Music that still lets you play music that is on your computer, and buy music as well.
6- An unreleased song Dacus played live when I saw her in the fall of 2018, called “Thumbs” is probably some of her finest work as a songwriter and lyricist. She paints a terribly, terribly sad and vivid portrait within that song.
7- In college, and maybe for a year or so after college, I was really into the Jimmy Eat World cover of “Last Christmas,” but in retrospect, while it’s infectious, it leaves a lot to be desired, and focuses only on the song’s refrain, foregoing both verses, and maybe touching on the bridge section? Like, it’s energetic, but terribly flawed.