Album Review: Lucy Dacus - Home Video

Near the very end of 2018, in what we, as a society, have began affectionately calling “the before times,” when going to a concert, and being in a large crowd of people1 was a relatively normal thing for folks to do without even a second thought, I stood in First Avenue and watched Lucy Dacus play a short, opening set—she was followed by Phoebe Bridgers, then Julien Baker; the three of them, then, as an encore of sorts, returned to the stage together and played the six songs from the, at the time, recently released boygenius EP they had collaborated on as a group.

Her short set that night—a Saturday in November—focused primarily on tunes from her album Historian, which had been released in April of that year; however, even before she was joined on stage by the rest of her bandmates, Dacus began her set by coming out on stage alone, with just her guitar, and played what, at that point, was an unreleased, unrecorded song.

She didn’t introduce it by name before she began playing it (an internet search after the show told me it was commonly referred to as “Thumbs”), but she implored the audience to refrain from recording it with their mobile devices.

I would like to think that most people in the audience obliged—and Dacus later explained in an interview that she didn’t want people to hear it for the first time through their phone’s speaker.

The song itself, that night, was stunning, and the room was surprisingly silent2 for her—a simmering, emotionally charged, poignant way to open up a long night of emotionally charged and poignant music. And enough time has passed between that Saturday night in November of 2018 and today, where I hadn’t forgotten about the song—I mean, there was an entire Twitter account dedicated to checking if Lucy had released “Thumbs” yet or not; but if you had pressed me before March of this year to remember lyrics, word for word, or describe the melody or arrangement, I don’t think I would have been able to. 

What I could recall—what was unforgettable, really, is the story within the song, or maybe a better way to put that is Dacus’ storytelling within the song, and the way she, almost effortlessly in her command of language, creates a vivid, stark narrative. 

She puts you within the world of song before the first line is even over. You are right there with her, as her college roommate hangs up the phone; and later, you accompany the two of them to where they meet her roommate’s estranged father; and later still, for their walk back home. 

And what I came back to, today, when thinking about the song “Thumbs,” and in thinking about a lot of things happening within my own life and the lives of those close to me, is one of the harrowing lines (there are many) that she returns to throughout—“I don’t know how you keep smiling.”

I don’t know how you keep smiling.


Home Video, the third full length from Lucy Dacus, is an album about telling stories. 

Maybe “telling” isn’t the right word. 

Maybe “crafting.” Or “sharing.” 

I say that, though, and it is not intended to be a slight on the stories she wrote into the material from Historian—the messy breakup that punctuated the album’s bombastic, howling opening track and anthemic single, “Night Shift”; the 2015 racial unrest, tension, and protests in Baltimore that inspired the sprawling, swaying “Yours and Mine”; or the familial scenes she depicts in “Nonbeliever,” and “Pillar of Truth.” 

Those were all stories, yes, and Dacus told them well, folding the intricate details into the fabric of her songs, revealing herself to be a compelling, thoughtful songwriter.

There is, however, something much more personal and focused about the stories she shares on Home Video. 

So personal, and so focused, in fact, that the contents of these songs seem like the kind of memories and reflections you would only write about in your journal, or whisper to a close friend—instead, Dacus and her stable of collaborators set them to enormous, expansive arrangements, creating a sometimes surprising, but always gorgeous contrast in the fragility of these stories and the characters that inhabit them, with the robust nature of the instrumentation and the pristine attention to detail within Home Video’s production and mixing. 

Like her peers and Boygenius bandmates, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, both of whom drastically expanded their sonic palette on Little Oblivions and Punisher, respectively, Home Video is a daring, utterly fearless, gigantic step forward for Dacus—the kind of breathtaking artistic statement that pushes the boundaries as far as they will go, and never comes close to buckling under its own ambitions. 

From the beginning to the devastating, beautiful end, Dacus never flinches once, no matter how honest or revealing a song becomes. 


A number of years ago, a stranger told me I “should smile.”

This would have been at least two years ago, maybe more than that, in a time—what we, as a society, have began affectionately calling “the before times,” when a piece of cloth was not obscuring half of my face for eight or nine hours out of my day. This was when people could see my mouth—they could see my lips moving, and the off-white, browning tint and jagged edges of my teeth.

This was when people could see my mouth—the edges pointed neither up, nor down. Just a mouth, surrounded by graying facial hair, simply existing within a face. 

I was at work—a somewhat busy Friday morning, and walking quickly toward the front of the building. A woman—an older woman, in her 60s certainly, whom I do not know by name but recognized as somewhat of a regular, was standing by the entryway, and took one look at me before bellowing, her arms extended out, as one might to greet somebody they had known for years, hands wringing as she exclaimed loudly, “Why the frown? YOU SHOULD SMILE!

This caught me off guard for myriad reasons, and I took a moment before I looked at her, and as politely as I could, responded.

Miss, this is just what my face looks like.”

I think about smiling—the idea of it. All the things it could mean, or that we want it to mean, or convey. All the things we use it to hide, or distract from. 

I don’t know how you keep smiling.

Somewhat recently, a co-worker—and I believe that she was as well intended as one could be by doing this, or at least, thought it a harmless comment, but she asked me why I seemed so unhappy, then began pressing on what it would take to make me seem less unhappy. 

I didn’t feel like it at first, but the further the conversation continued, I went from feeling like I was being chided, to more like I was being berated, or scolded, in a matter of seconds. And I was not in a place to answer honestly, or as frankly as I might have wanted to under different circumstances, so instead, I clumsily and exasperatedly responded by asking, “Can we please talk about something more pleasant? 

But, in retrospect, the correct response from me should have been, “You never ask a depressed person why they seem unhappy.

Later, as I was leaving for the day, the same co-worker returned to the subject, albeit in a slightly different manner, inquiring as to if I was smiling under the face mask I was wearing. In an effort to avoid more berating, or chiding, especially at the end of the day, I quickly responded by saying that I was “smizing” as best as I could underneath, and tried to leave it at that.

I think about smiling—the idea of it. All the things it could mean, or that we want it to mean, or convey. All the things we use it to hide, or distract from.

I don’t know how you keep smiling.


In advance of Home Video, Dacus released four singles—the most recent being “Brando,” arriving two weeks before the rest of the album. While she was probably happy that the tunes issued in advance had been so warmly received by listeners, the day after “Brando”’s release, Dacus tweeted, “the best songs off Home Video aren’t out yet,” and it will take you one listen through the album, from start to finish, to understand she was 100% correct—especially within the album’s second half, there are moments that left me absolutely speechless, and most importantly, there are moments that contain keys that help in unlocking and grasping the album’s greater narrative as a whole.

There was a recent feature about Home Video on Pitchfork3 that gave Dacus the opportunity to provide slightly more insight into the origins of this collection of songs, and in it, she discusses her brief time in film school, and how she learned a movie’s title sequence should set the tone. 

Almost all of these songs have a cinematic quality to them, in one way or another—the imagery in her lyrics is beyond vivid, but with Home Video’s opening track, through her method of storytelling and the rollicking arrangement, she sets the overall tone—at least the narrative conceit of memory and contemplation.

Being back here makes me hot in the face,” she begins in the opening line of “Hot and Heavy.” “Heavy memories weighing on my brain.” 

And if there’s one specific line in the album that serves as a through line, or a thesis, if you will, through the 11 tracks, it’s that one. And from there, we’re pulled into Home Video’s swirling narratives, and Dacus is unrelenting as a guide through her “coming of age” years, growing up in Richmond, Virginia. 

Home Video is a very deliberately paced album, with there being an intelligent give and take from song to song, and of the album’s 11 tracks, none of them could be deemed “inaccessible” by a listener, though there are a handful of them that have a lot more enthusiasm or exuberance built into their arranging. “Hot and Heavy,” released as a single to coincide with the announcement that the album itself was forthcoming, is among Home Video’s most infectious, or readily accessible to casual listen. It starts out slowly, and it’s not a bait and switch, as a warm wash of synths, strummed electric guitar, and Dacus’ voice all work to find their way into alignment before the song really kick into gear and the energy builds. 

Dacus explains that the writing comes from a place of duality—and right out of the gate, knowing that, it should be apparent how thoughtful and whip smart her lyricism is going to be, bending the ideas of protagonists and antagonists, point of view, and characterization to her will as she creates a convergence—writing about a friend she grew further apart from as the friend in question made additional friends, then writing about herself, from the perspective of someone she dated. It’s an interesting device that adds a lot depth to effacing lines like, “You used to be so sweet, now you’re a firecracker on a crowded street,” and the pensive observation that she ends the song with: “You’re better than ever but I knew you when. It’s bittersweet to see you again.”

Perhaps equally as energetic in its appearance is “First Time,” which is punctuated by a steady, crunchy sounding drum kit, and a quickly, and somewhat recklessly strummed electric guitar, and at first, musically speaking at least, it seems more in line with the relatively straight forward, guitar driven nature of Dacus’ previous body of work—though the song opens itself up after its surprising first verse with the inclusion of both more synthesizer washes, and a dreamy guitar tone courtesy of Dacus’ lead guitarist and regular collaborator, Jacob Blizzard, who is credited in the album’s extensive liner notes as contributing, among other things, the “Dream Sequence” pedal. 

“First Time,” set against the relentless momentum Dacus and her bandmates are able to generate, finds her writing from a place of surprisingly frank candor. In her conversation with Pitchfork about the song, writer Quinn Moreland says she likes how the lyrics capture the physical awkwardness of being a teenager. There is that, yes, as Dacus describes trying to sneak into somebody’s house through first the screened in porch, but then, she details trying to get int through the doggy door, which is where the lyrics take a turn. “I may let you see me on my knees but you’ll never see me on all fours,” she states with a surprising confidence that might make other singers blush at the double entendre that is implied. 

There is a pathos to the way she dissects the fumbling of teenage sexual encounters—able to both laugh at it now, but also a little humbling. “You gave me your hands ‘cause you didn’t know what to do with them,” she sings in the second verse. “And I showed you the way, even though I’d never been.”

Placed near the end of Home Video, as maybe one final jolt of energy before it descends into its final, somber, jaw dropping final two tracks, is “Brando,” which is the last of the tunes in this collection cut from this musically similar cloth. 

Opening with muted drum programming and a low synth that gives space to Dacus’ guitar, then pulls back for simmering, gentle acoustic guitar, and a skittering rhythm that finds its way in underneath it all. An album like this—easy to call “indie rock,” but more time consuming to actually describe since it’s such a diverse album in terms of a “sound,” seems like an unlikely place to find a song that you can dance along with—but “Brando” is it.

And it’s fitting, maybe, because of the nod to old movies and Fred and Ginger that Dacus sings of. Lyrically, “Brando” is the most easy to unpack, and I hesitate to say that it is the meanest song on the record, but it is the song that cuts the deepest in a retrospective way. Raised in a very Christian household (another very important key to unlocking a lot of the material on this album), Dacus admits her indoctrination into pop culture came later for her than for her peers. “Brando” is about a friend who she described as basing his entire personality4 on the media he consumed—mostly old films, from the sound of it. “I’m in a second story window and you’re yelling ‘STELLA!,’ and I’m laughing ‘cause you think you’re Brando but you’ll never come close.”

Dacus explains the friendship didn’t last long, but based on the song’s angsty refrain, you don’t need any annotation about “Brando” to see that her time with this friend was not long for this world: “All I need for you to admit is that you never knew me like you thought you did.”


You’ve been in his fist ever since you were a kid—but you don’t owe him shit even if he said you did.

Friends, if I may break the fourth wall here, 2,500 words into this review, a few months ago, found myself completely immersed in Wild River, the debut solo album from Anika Pyle—a dynamic singer and songwriter in her own right who has spent a handful of years fronting the power pop/emo leaning outfit Katie Ellen. 

An album created last year because Pyle had literally nothing else to do but try and make something out of her terrible grief, Wild River is a cycle of songs and spoken word poetry about the death of her father that she, at one time, was more or less estranged from, but had reconnected with a few years ago and had been working on building a relationship with.

Immersed in the album, my own endless well of grief that I am uncertain what to do with or how to ‘process,’ and then thinking about the women in my life who have all lost their fathers suddenly and prematurely, the piece grew in length and ambition as they often tend to do, and yes it was of course a review about Pyle’s album and how impactful it was, but it also became about my own father, and my difficult, borderline non-existent relationship with him.

You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did.

Friends, if I you will allow me to continue breaking the fourth wall, one of the strands that I flimsily tried to weave into the piece on Wild River was about my time writing for things that no longer exist—here, it was specifically for a fledgling arts and culture website The Next Ten Words, and how at the end of 2017, I had written a piece about the fractures in my relationship with my father.

Within that essay, there is a point—not the “climax” if you will but perhaps a breaking point of sorts, where I recall an email my father sent me in the autumn of 2009, and in it, he offhandedly asked if my wife and I (up until this point, we were just living together as “partners”5) had ever thought about getting married, and in response, I had to tell him that, coincidentally, she and I had just gotten married, and that I had, much to the surprise of a number of my wife’s family members, opted not to invite him to the ceremony.

He was hurt, and in our exchange, I had confessed that our relationship had been obviously strained since he and my mother divorced some 14 years earlier, and the older I grew, the more fractured things became and the further we drifted apart, and when I was young, I had placed the blame for this on him. 

He was hurt, and in our exchange, he confessed that our relationship had obviously been strained, but that for some 14 years, he had blamed me—that he had tried to be a father but I hadn’t tried to continue being a son.

There was never any real resolve from those exchanges, other than those sentiments finally being exposed. 

I love your eyes, and he has ‘em. Or you have his, ‘cause he was first.

Sometimes, when I catch my reflection in the mirror, I still see the resemblances—the resemblances are hard to shake, even though I have not seen my father in 15 years.

Even though there is a very, very good chance I will never see my father again. 

It’s in the eyes mostly, and where they sit within the composition of my face. 

Sometimes I think, only in passing flashes, about what might have happened if things had turned out differently at any point—if there had been any kind of solid relationship to begin with, or if I had wanted to put in the work to mend it as an adult. 

But those are only passing flashes.

In the liner notes for Home Video, Dacus, as eloquently as she can be, states, “No thank you to all the dumpster dads.” 

Dacus sets the tone right from the beginning with “Thumbs.” 

Here, well over two years removed from when I heard her play it alone with a guitar on a Saturday night, it’s spectral in arrangement and sound—the guitar is replaced with a handful of synthesizers that aren’t oppressive, per se, but they, from the very first note, set a heavy mood that never lifts, even with the affirmation she repeats at the end. 

Dacus sets the tone right from the beginning with “Thumbs,” which arrives as the final track on Home Video’s first side. “You hung up the phone and I asked you what was wrong,” she sings. “Your dad has come to town. He’d like to meet.”

It’s very matter of fact, the way she says this, but there’s something about it being so factual, but also being so personally affecting for me—and probably a lot of other listeners too—that I feel this song, and its narrative, in the pit of my stomach. 

“Thumbs” doesn’t make me feel seen, or attacked, or any of the other charming, self-deprecating ways I often react to popular music that I catch glimpses of myself in, but it does make me feel, because friends, I get that same visceral sense of anxious tension in the pit of my stomach when I see an email from my father’s name turn up in my inbox. 

You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did.


Similarly to her peer and boygenius bandmate Julien Baker, Dacus was raised in a Christian household; and while Baker has not turned her back on religion or spirituality, but uses her music—especially her most recent effort, the dark and explosive Little Oblivions, to continue working through her own believes and chasing an absolution that seems just out of her grasp, Dacus uses Home Video as an opportunity to look at her religious upbringing in hindsight to see where, and how, it impacted her early on, and how the intentional distance from it has shaped the individual she has grown into.

The shadow of “the church” lingers over a bulk of the album, but it is most apparent and perhaps is cast the darkest over “VBS”—“vacation bible school,” which arrives midway through the album’s first side.

There is an interesting contrast, to me anyway, that occurs on “VBS.” Lyrically, it is one of the most literate—Dacus is thoughtful, poignant, and graceful while she looks back upon her early, teenage years at vacation bible school camps, where she met her first boyfriend, whom she describes as the resident “bad boy” at camp—he loved smoking pot and listening to Slayer more than he loved Jesus, she explains, and felt like she could “save him.”

Dacus is descriptive throughout Home Video, but perhaps she is most detailed on “VBS” in the way she reflects on the object of her affection and attention—“Sedentary secrets like peach pits in your gut, locked away like jam jars in the cellar of your heart,” she says in the song’s first verse. “Waiting to be tasted but ultimately wasted, you were gonna win me over from the start.”

Even in that descriptiveness, there is some startling, intentional ambiguity as she continues to paint the portrait—“Your dad keeps his sleeves down through the summer for a reason; your mother wears her makeup extra thick for a reason,” she explains. “When I tell you, you were born and you are here for a reason, you are not convince the reason is a good one.”

And in the song’s refrain, Dacus creates a startling juxtaposition that, much like the portrait painted of this boy and family, she opts to not provide any resolution to: “Your poetry was so bad,” she recalls. “It took a lot to not laugh. You say that I showed you the light, but all it did in the end was make the dark feel darker than before.”

Dacus builds a world, yes, throughout Home Video, but in “VBS,” she builds this additional, self-contained world that is utterly fascinating to hear described. But however interesting the song is, musically, it is one of the few moments that fails to connect—with its plodding rhythms, it lacks the immediacy that much of the other songs within the album have. 


Musically, Home Video is an album full of surprises in terms of the growth and risks that Dacus and her band are willing to take—perhaps the most surprising song on the album arrives well into its second half, “Partner in Crime.”

It is, of course, lyrically surprising too, as Dacus recalls a short-lived romance with someone much older, and lying about her age to put them at ease—“I saw relief dawn on your eyes,” she confesses in the second verse. It is also, as she explains in the annotation for the song, about her desire, as a teenager, to be taken incredibly seriously and have deep conversations with those who were willing to do so—“I wanna run my fingers through you,” she sings near the song’s ending. “You say nobody understands you like I do.”

More surprising than the lyrical content is the song’s slow burning, somber, slinking instrumentation, and the use of Auto Tune on her vocals. Dacus recorded “Partner in Crime” while recovering from a vocal injury, and was instructed to limit the amount of speaking and singing she could do in a day. Unable to reach the right notes during the recording, she resorted to Auto Tune and it resulted in what she calls a “happy accident,” ultimately changing the arranging and tone of the song. 

There is a detachment in her voice that comes from the use of the digital manipulation—an exaggerated, desolate, icy feeling that Kanye West famously built into the world he created on 808s and Heartbreak. Dacus sees the implement of Auto Tune as an extension of the song’s conceit—disguising who you are to appear more attractive. Though with the overdriven way she uses it and the way it rolls her voice robotically, it creates a palpable sense of distance—and casts a chill over the scenario that she is looking back on.

And it is perhaps through the manipulation of her voice, and the simmering instrumentation, production, and pacing, but there is a heavy weight to this song—the lyrics, certainly, also contribute to that feeling as well. Of course there is an emotional heft to literally all of Home Video, but on “Partner in Crime,” there’s something about the way the distended guitar chords linger in the ether just a little bit longer; there’s something about the way Dacus delves into almost a Taylor Swift-esque pop song delivery of her lyrics at one point; and there is something about the robotic cooing of the song’s refrain—“Do you love me? Do you love me not?”—it all creates a very visceral sense of desperation and longing that resonates well after the song is over.

As Home Video begins its descent, “Please Stay,” one of the most lyrically ambiguous but also lyrically direct songs on the album is a song that shares sentiments with a number of tunes on Punisher, the landmark sophomore release from Dacus’ peer and other boygenius bandmate, Phoebe Bridgers. And that is the notion of loving someone who doesn't love themselves. 

On Punisher, Bridgers writes about it not at length, but enough that it is something I think about right away when I reflect on the album—present in the “I.C.U.” line, “I used to light you up, now I can’t even get you to play the drums,” as well as in the tumultuous relationship depicted in the devastating “Moon Song.” 

“Please Stay,” where Dacus is joined by both Bridgers and Baker, who provide additional vocals, is a song that is both clearly about someone, but it also about the abstract idea of, as she puts it, “being a friend to someone who doesn’t think they should continue living.”

Given the content of the song, it should be no surprise that “Please Stay” is among the album’s most somberly executed, with a swirling blend of gentle acoustic guitar, cavernous piano, and a warm undercurrent of synths, creating the bed with which Dacus pleads with the song’s antagonist to stay, in the most literal sense, culminating in a bridge section of emotionally charged contrasts: “Change your name, change your mind, change your ways—give them time,” she sings. “Tell the secret you can’t keep. Begin, be done. Break a vow—make a new one,” she continues, before perhaps the most haunting, “Call me if you need a friend, or never talk to me again,” before the song’s final request: “But please stay.”

Home Video ends with the album’s longest track, “Triple Dog Dare,” which sprawls out to nearly eight minutes in length. Joined again by Bridgers and Baker who provide additional vocals, it’s Dacus’ thoughtful, delicate reflection on a teenage friendship that ended abruptly, and her rumination on what is perhaps her earliest exploration of queer feelings.

Dacus’ queer identity hasn’t resonated as loudly in her work up until now as it has, say, in comparison to her boygenius bandmate Julien Baker, who, along with the grappling of her spiritual identity has often written about her orientation and identity and the difficulties they present. Home Video, due to the very reflective nature of the material here, presents Dacus an opportunity to unpack those feelings and the places they fit within her past.

Much like the hyper literate narratives of “VBS” and “Thumbs,” “Triple Dog Dare” places you next to Dacus an her friend as they venture to the local five and dime late one evening, with Dacus working in her emotions slowly, in a most impressive way.

You’re dancing in the aisle ‘cause the radio is singing you a song you know,” she recalls. “And the kid at the counter is gawking at your face. I can tell what he’s thinking by the look on his face—it’s not his fault, I’m sure I look the same. It’s what you do, but it’s not you I blame.”

Dacus has explained that her friend came from another very religious (Catholic, this time) family, but that her friend’s mother, of all things, was a palm reader, and in receiving a reading, the two were no longer allowed to spend time together. “She wouldn’t tell me what she saw…I’m staring at my hands—red, ruddy skin I don’t understand,” Dacus reflects. “How did they betray me? What did I do? I never touched you how I wanted to.”

When I was in college, in one of the few writing classes I was able to take, I learned about the idea of “creative non-fiction,” and with the final, culminating moments of Home Video, and the grand, sweeping closing of “Triple Dog Dare,” Dacus admittedly deviates from the non-fiction of the narratives thus far and doesn’t so much try to “rewrite” what happened, but in reminiscing on those feelings, imagines a “what if” scenario. 

Leading up to the mantra like delivery of the titular phrase in the bridge, Dacus describes a final, stark conversation with her friend before they part ways. “
I want you to tell me that you miss me—want you to hold, and hurt, and kiss me,” she sings before developing the alternate path the two could have taken of running away and living on the friend’s family boat, with the final, fleeting moments of the song serving as an epilogue for the two of them: “They put our faces on the milk jugs—missing children ’til they gave up. Your mama was right, and though the grief, can’t fight the feeling of relief…nothing worse could happen now.”

And after the frenetic, cacophonic build up, with the dissonance and noise that eventually, beautifully and tragically swirls and encompasses the repetition of the phrase, “It’s a triple dog dare,” the real catharsis of the song, and for the album, and maybe for you, the listener, whether you are ready for it or expecting it, is in the way Dacus lets those last words fall, and the gravity of what it all could mean.

Nothing worse could happen now.


There were signs following the release of Historian that Dacus was interested in expanding the soundscape she works in—specifically, her daring and well put together cover of Phil Collins’ classic “In The Air Tonight,” included on her 2019 EP of covers and a smattering of originals. And so the rich, robust nature of Home Video’s production and arranging does not so much come as a shock—it is very welcome, and it sounds like the next logical step for Dacus and her band as they continue to grow as performers, writers, and producers.

I always hesitate to toss around the expression “a headphone record,” because that makes it seem like every album needs to be the most insular listening experience possible. Home Video of course can, and is more than likely intended, to be enjoyed and listened to in all forms, like from the speakers of your turntable, where, if you are like me, you’ll get an idea of just how well produce and seemingly labored over these songs have been. But, if you really want to listen for the way the layers have been structured and woven together, it is an album that requires a closeness or intimacy that headphones can provide. 

It’s little things that are not as little to me, like the way things are mixed—like the way the ending of “Triple Dog Dare” becomes almost too much and the sound swallows itself; or the thoughtful way a drum track has been recorded—the longing thump and crisp hit of the hi-hat on “Partner in Crime,” or the crunch that is added to give “First Time” just a little bit of an extra edge in its rhythm.

Home Video is a warm, big sounding record—even in the few moments when it falters—and I suppose it has to be big and warm in sound to create a stable foundation for the stories told within.


Three days before I watch a member of my family die, crammed in the mailbox on a Monday afternoon, I find a bubble mailer from the return sender Lucy Dacus. Inside is a video cassette—an actual VHS tape, the cassette’s white label designed to mimic that of a TDK cassette in the 1980s and early 90s—the recording speed set to “LD” instead of “SP” or “EP”; a recording of the film The Philadelphia Story crossed out in red marker, and what I realize now as a clue to the album’s title, Home Video, written in red marker, but crossed out with blue.

The word “Thumbs” is scrawled across the rest of the label. 

I am uncertain how (or why) I ended up receiving one these tapes, and of the people who did receive them—there are 100 cassettes in existence, and I received number 85—I am uncertain how many had easy access to a VCR in order to play it. 

I knew something was happening—Dacus had shared contextless images of the cassettes on her social media accounts. This was all within the last week of February, and the Twitter account solely dedicated to updates on if Dacus had released “Thumbs” yet tweeted, on February 25th, “No, but I think we’re close.” 

My VHS of “Thumbs” arrived in the mail on March 1st; I recall that my head was swirling with surprise and anticipation at the cassette’s mysterious arrival, and after placing the dirty dishes from my lunch bag in the dishwasher, and hanging up my jacket, I turned on our VCR6, carefully sliding the cassette in the deck where I was greeted with the familiar whirring and ka-thunking sounds that a VCR makes.

I pressed play, and eased my way onto the floor, my back resting against the living room wall, where I sat next to our cat, Ted.

Ted was dying. My wife and I knew it, but also didn’t want to know it—or rather, we did not want to believe it. 

Once the tape started, a blue screen illuminated from the television—and the image that appeared in the center is the same as the design superimposed onto the movie theatre screen from the Home Video cover art. 

A little muffled from the antiquated form of media it was presented on, this new version of “Thumbs” slowly revealed itself through my stereo speakers. Still beautiful, and incredibly haunting, it took me just a moment to acclimate myself to the changes that the song had undergone7.

“Thumbs,” based on the thematic content alone, as well as the moody arranging, is a lot to take—especially on its own, as a contextless single, released a month ahead of an album announcement. And even within the structure of Home Video, it’s still a lot to take. It isn’t a definitive statement, or song, from Dacus, but it is a high-water mark at this point in her young career. It’s the kind of song that you write once, and you never have to try and duplicate. The kind of song that’s going to live on, and grow to become something much larger than itself because of all the different things it means for the people listening. 

I don’t know how you keep smiling

For the two years we had been living with Ted The Cat, there had always been questions about his health. 

He came to us as a “special needs cat,” with an auto-immune disorder that had manifested itself in a bizarre and severe irritation of the skin on his neck—and while we continually worked on trying to clear that up, or at least keep it under better control, we had concerns about some strange urinary behaviors, and ongoing digestive issues.

He had started going blind at either the end of January or beginning of February. 

First, it was just one of his eyes—diagnosed as having glaucoma. But then within another week or two, he was having difficulties with the other eye as well.

I’m uncertain how soon exactly after that came the loss of mobility. 

And because of this, to keep him safe, we created an area for him that was closed off from the rest of the living room, where he could rest in the stone fruit box he favored sleeping in, and alert us to if he needed assistance making it into the litter box.

This is where I sat, back against the wall, patting Ted on the noggin, as “Thumbs” resonated through the living room. 

I don’t know how you keep smiling.

I had played Ted’s decline pretty close to the chest—outside of my therapist, I had really only told one person about what was happening. 

Three days after a bubble mailer with the return sender Lucy Dacus is crammed into the mailbox, containing a mysterious VHS cassette with the song “Thumbs” on it, my wife and I have to say goodbye to Ted. It becomes apparent the medications we are trying are not helping him. He spends the last morning, a Thursday, seemingly more listless, and more confused and disoriented than before. 

We know that “it’s time,” but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.

Something complicated and neurological is responsible for his decline. And in the end, our hope is that he hasn’t been in any pain. In the end, it is beyond devastating to watch him fade—the receding of who he is to become something he was unable to recognize. 

…through the grief, can’t fight the feeling of relief—nothing worse could happen now.

I return to work the next day because I am uncertain what else to do. The house, once full of life, is silent. It still is, four months later. And there are times when it is a silence, so deafening, it threatens to swallow everything around it.

I think about smiling—the idea of it. All the things it could mean, or that we want it to mean, or convey. All the things we use it to hide, or distract from.

I don’t know how you keep smiling. 

I hadn’t intended, of course, for this review of the new Lucy Dacus album to become a partial rumination on watching a member of my family slip away, but once I began jotting down notes on all of the things, or ideas, that could be written into this, receiving the video cassette of the song “Thumbs” was one of them I needed to work in, and the period of time around that was something I, very briefly, thought about trying to avoid, or figuring out how to write around it, but realized I couldn’t be that dishonest to myself.

I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, but I recalled a poem that I wrote as part of an assignment for a writing class I took in college—the one that introduced me to the idea of “creative non-fiction.” It’s a short piece—just a tumbling of words that reflect on a photograph taken in the fall of 1996, of my friend Peter and I, outside of our junior high school. My mother took the picture, but I am uncertain why. 

The poem allowed me to space to laugh at how ridiculously I was dressed8, and to ruminate on the mischievous nature of Peter’s eyes. 

I think about the endless pages of photographs in albums, stored in a large box in my mother’s house—my entire life, more or less, documented one still, fragmented memory at a time. I think about what stories those fragments might be able to tell—how they might speak to me if I wanted to listen.

It cannot be easy to revisit the past, while creating a dichotomy through graciously reflecting on it as your present self, and that is among the reasons why Home Video is an absolutely astonishing marvel of a record. Already a songwriter and voice with wisdom beyond her years, the album cements Dacus’ status as an intelligent, thoughtful, and artistic force. It is a beautiful, challenging statement, and Dacus had constructed a fascinating world of memory on Home Video, and she wholeheartedly invites you inside. By doing so, she provides the encouragement for you to build a world of memory of your own—and what you do with that, and where it takes you…the possibilities are endless. 

Nothing worse could happen now.

I don't know how you keep smiling.

I don't know how you keep—

I don't know how—

1- Hey so here’s the thing. I know that a lot of people are not super anxious and terribly depressed like I am, and are okay with crowds, and being out late, and going to concerts—and a lot of people are excited to have the opportunity to go back to concerts again now that “things are opening up,” but I have always had debilitating concert anxiety, and so it has always been tough for me to get over that to go to shows, and given the pandemic state of things, I am uncertain when, if ever, I’ll feel okay about doing that.

2- First Avenue is an overrated venue in Minneapolis that attracts notoriously shitty crowds who famously will talk loudly over an artist while they perform so the fact that people actually shut the fuck up during Lucy’s opening moment was surprising. 

3- I don’t want to get into a thing about “reviewing the review” because I have done that in the past, but it is frustrating that Pitchfork published the very lengthy interview with Dacus where she annotated the songs, but then two days later, the site ran a mixed review of Home Video and gave it a somewhat low rating, given how much they have lauded her work in the past. I understand interviews/feature stories does not go hand in hand with good reviews, but I still have questions on when and how the site begins to turn its back on artists it, at one time, championed.

4- There were not a lot of moments on Home Video that had me feeling “seen” or “attacked,” but the conceit of “Brando” did, especially with some of the things I have adopted into my aesthetic and lexicon thanks to the amount of time I spend watching/listening to Desus and Mero. Ah ah ah you know the fucking vibes. Yerrrrr.

5- Referring to yourself as “boyfriend and girlfriend” when you are living together and in a long term, committed relationship seems inaccurate, and cutesy, but also “partners” is a word that I am uncertain that straight couples should be using—or when they do use it, it sounds weird. So I don’t know folks. There was a time when my wife and I weren’t married but we lived together. That’s what I am trying to say.

6- I think I am in the minority of folks who still have a working VCR that I use with some regularity. 

7- This is just a quick observation—I liken this to the first time I heard the song “Motion Picture Soundtrack” by Radiohead. The original version of it I was introduced to was from a radio session, featuring just Thom Yorke, playing the song alone with an electric guitar—there is, famously, a third verse in this iteration of the song. It is a night and day difference from the version that the group recorded for Kid A, and it took a little while for me to be okay with the changes. 

8- I went to a private, Catholic school, so we had a dress code. But in this photo, for context, I am wearing very baggy jeans, a large black t-shirt with the logo for the band Gravity Kills on it, and, of all things, I am wearing a “Cat in The Hat” style hat. I presume it was homecoming week, and it was something, like, “silly hat day” or something.

Home Video is out now in myriad formats via Matador.