One Good Thing: Lucy Dacus’s latest album is a different kind of ghost story

There’s a common trajectory that can frequently be observed in American popular music: A promising first album will brim with potential but maybe isn’t quite all there yet. A near-great second album will burst with ideas and can make it seem like the artist can do anything. A masterful, even perfect third album pulls together everything that worked in the first two albums to make something amazing.

I always think of this trajectory in terms of Bruce Springsteen. His first three albums — January 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.; November 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, & the E-Street Shuffle; and 1975’s Born to Run — follow this career trajectory almost exactly.

There are plenty of artists who follow this trajectory other than Springsteen, but allow me to stick with the Boss for a second, because another Springsteen superfan is 26-year-old singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus. And Dacus’s third album, Home Video, released this summer, is a straight-up masterpiece.

(I suspect Dacus will be flattered by the comparison. She released a terrific cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” in 2019, and she told Rolling Stone in an interview that year that “Bruce’s birthday should be a national holiday.”)

The similarities between Home Video and Born to Run aren’t readily apparent upon first listen. While Springsteen’s album is a blast of desperate rock, Dacus’s album builds lush musical arrangements full of shimmering percussion and ethereal backing vocals. It’s the kind of slightly stripped-down singer-songwriter arrangement that typified her first album, 2016’s No Burden. Born to Run, meanwhile, is brash, bold, and noisy, Springsteen’s street rat strivers straining to be heard over an enormous wall of sound.

Dacus isn’t averse to rocking out, either. No Burden contains plenty of tunes that turn up the volume a bit, and her 2018 second album, Historian, is louder still, tipping all the way over into heavier rock several times. That trend continues. Several songs on Home Video favor the sound of a shaggy bar band having the time of their life. The opening track, “Hot and Heavy,” offers a guitar-heavy tour of the white evangelical Southern milieu the album takes place in, while the single “Brando” is a terrific pissed-off breakup song just begging for either a hard rock or dance-pop cover.

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But for much of its running time, Home Video skews ever so slightly more toward the quietude of Dacus’s debut album. Dacus has grown as a songwriter since 2016, and her songs create a tension where the people at the center of her stories are confronting horrifying things at a volume barely above a whisper. The album centerpiece “Thumbs” features the singer’s hushed accounting of a night when she accompanied a friend (or possibly lover) who was about to see her abusive father for the first time in years.

“Thumbs” is immediately followed with “Going Going Gone,” which amounts to a campfire sing-along about an innocent and nervous ex-boyfriend who grows out of that innocence and turns into a drunk who grabs women’s asses. And yet the song never leaves behind the feel of something you might sing around the fire in the middle of the woods. It’s gentle, even as its subject matter underscores a certain tragedy.

The voices on “Going Going Gone” include indie-rock enigma Mitski, whom Dacus opened for on Mitski’s most recent tour. The chorus also features Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, whom Dacus records with as the trio boygenius. All three have made cameo appearances on one another’s most recent solo album, starting with Bridgers’s Punisher in 2020, continuing with Baker’s Little Oblivions this spring, and now concluding with “Going Going Gone” and “Please Stay” on Home Video. Dacus’s musical net is cast incredibly wide.

So why the Springsteen comparisons, beyond Dacus’s fandom for the rock star? For as ultimately different as Home Video and Born to Run sound, the two albums fall into similarly almost-autobiographical territory.

Springsteen’s stories of New Jersey working-class tough guys endlessly posturing in hopes no one will figure out what they’re overcompensating for had the feel of someone remembering their adolescence with just enough distance to make sense of it. (Springsteen was 25 when Born to Run came out.)

Meanwhile, Dacus draws from both her life and the lives of other people she knew growing up in heavily evangelical Virginia. She wrote many of the songs on the album after reading her childhood journals, and as such, her songs remember the pains of growing up queer in a place that didn’t always let people explore that side of themselves. (Dacus described herself as “gay,” “queer,” and “bisexual or pansexual” in the same sentence in a New York Times interview, and then said she thinks “Gender is a joke.”)

“Hot and Heavy” sets up the album as a kind of memory play — Dacus is back somewhere and suffused with painful memories of growing up. Where “Hot and Heavy” explicitly roots that in memories of a person Dacus misses, it also creates an expectation for the album to follow: You’re listening to the sonic equivalent of driving through your hometown after years away, memories pouring in with every building you pass.

Born to Run ends with the epic, mournful “Jungleland,” in which Springsteen’s strivers realize they might never escape. Home Video concludes with maybe the best song Dacus has yet written, “Triple Dog Dare,” which (in my read of the album) circles back to the person she missed so badly in “Hot and Heavy.”