Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz (All Photos)
A little after 7 pm, Fenne Lily – supported by her band – walks onto stage to open for label-mate Lucy Dacus in Bristol – the city in which Lily has been performing since the age of 15. Now 25, she begins with her best song yet, “Car Park”; a tender but self-assured indie-rock anthem about a relationship on the rocks. It’s filled with cutting, instantly quotable one-liners: “I’m not a mother // But, I’ve done a lot to prove to those I love that I am good enough,” “I wonder if you saw that I was sorry for the beating of my heart // When it woke you from the car park.” Across the following hour, Lily navigates first loves, breakups, body image, and more with a set of low-key, yet impactful indie numbers.
The Bristol performance is Dacus’ first in the UK in 2022 after the week’s previous dates in Leeds, Glasgow, Dublin, and Manchester were postponed following her positive Coronavirus test immediately after arriving in the UK. Telling of the toll that COVID can take on smaller, independent bands such as hers, Dacus asks the audience that they please wear a mask and nearly everyone obliges. It’s surprisingly moving to see everyone willing to make this small sacrifice in the interest of everyone around them – and it speaks to the sort of caring, empathetic audience Dacus has cultivated through her similarly caring and empathetic music.
Dacus’s two-hour set is bookended by two epics. The first of these is “Triple Dog Dare”, a nearly-eight-minute behemoth that tells of a blossoming, forbidden adolescent relationship, fear of the future, and an escapist fantasy that the duo makes good on. Starting with a humble beginning, the song expands into some massive and visceral, but quiets down in its final moments to reveal a devastating portrait of a mother navigating her child’s disappearance, ending with a haunting series of lines: “They put our faces on the milk jugs // Missing children till they gave up // Your mama was right and through the grief // Can’t fight the feeling of relief // Nothing worse could happen now // Nothing worse could happen now // Nothing worse // Could happen now.”
Dacus’ set consists largely of songs from her sophomore album – and Matador-debut – Historian, and her most recent (and best) album Home Video. Thematically, there’s a great deal of crossover between the albums – both centered on navigating the most difficult and most rewarding elements of adolescence (which often prove to be one-in-the-same in Dacus’ music). Yet the scope of each album feels very different; perhaps a reflection of the very different environments in which each album was written (one pre-pandemic, one during).
The songs off Historian offer some of the biggest moments of the night – there’s “Yours & Mine”, which was inspired by Dacus’ involvement in the 2015 Black Lives Matter protest, and stands as a rallying cry to a new generation fighting for a brighter future both personally and politically. And, of course, there’s “Addictions”, the impeccably catchy single whose breezy chorus stands in stark contrast to heart-wrenching lines like “Was I a risk without reward or did I make you proud?”
But, in what for many here is their first concert since the recent Winter lockdown, it’s the songs of Home Video which cut through the deepest. Quieter and more intimate than the songs of Historian, Home Video was inspired by Dacus’ childhood diaries and sees the Virginia artist take her craft to new levels – solidifying her status as one of the greatest songwriters of our generation.
The songs of Home Video pull off a remarkable double-act; simultaneously recalling the sweetness of youth while reminding you that the past wasn’t always as rosy as it seems. “VBS” – which is the sixth song Dacus performs in Bristol – takes listeners back to the “Summer of ‘07” and centers both the assurances of youth (“In the Summer of ‘07, I was sure I’d go to Heaven”) and a growing crisis of faith (“You say that I showed you light // But all it did, in the end, was make the dark feel darker than before”). It’s one of the most subdued songs on Dacus’ set, yet it possesses an undeniable quiet power that translates remarkably well in a live setting.
“Brando”, meanwhile, – another obvious highlight from Home Video – does similarly well live, boasting the album’s catchiest chorus and lyrics that tackle a troubled adolescent relationship with wit (“You called me cerebral // I didn’t know what that meant // But now I do // Would it have killed you to call me pretty instead?”)
“Partner In Crime” is the most obvious outlier in Dacus’ set – relying heavily on auto-tune. But while some critics have previously complained that the song feels “out-of-place” and is a “mistake” on Home Video, it turns out to be an invigorating left-turn in the middle of Dacus’ show. Its lyrics see Dacus take full responsibility for an age imbalanced relationship she was in (as the younger member) and reveal new depths to her lyricism (“When you asked my age, I lied // I saw relief dawn on your eyes // It’s not your fault, it’s mine // Let the record show // I walked in on my own”).
The previously-unreleased, a capella “Thumbs”, has long been a live fan favorite – so much so that there was an entire Twitter account called “Has Lucy Dacus Released Thumbs Yet?” – and it marks one of the most moving moments of the night, even as its sound is expanded with the aid of a full band. The song tells a captivating, unnerving murder fantasy as Dacus is confronted by a close friend’s deadbeat father (“I imagine my thumbs on the irises // Pressing in until they burst”).
After performing two of her slowest, quietest songs – “Thumbs” and the fantastic indie-folk “Going Going Gone” – Dacus livens things up considerably with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” and a rendition of her latest non-album single “Kissing Lessons.” The latter – which draws as much from pop-punk as it does indie rock – is a glorious anomaly in Dacus’ discography. A queer love anthem, it takes on new significance in front of a largely LGBTQ+ audience.
Dacus’ set ends, as expected, with “Night Shift” – the most epic song she’s ever recorded and one she seems destined to finish sets with for the rest of her performing career. It begins with a startling confession (“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit”) and across the following, six-and-a-half minutes deconstructs a failed relationship with surgical precision and anger that is directed in equal portions to Dacus and her ex (“You don’t deserve what you don’t respect,” “Why did I come here? Just to sit and watch you stare at your feet?”).
Half-way through, the song expands and becomes carnivorous as Dacus chants the chorus repeatedly (“You got a 9-to-5, so I’ll take the night shift // And I’ll never see you again if I can help it // In five years, I hope the songs feel like covers // Dedicated to now lovers”). It’s the obvious highlight of the night, though, given its subject matter, it comes as a surprise when a woman proposes to her girlfriend midway through. Still, if anything this moment demonstrates something true and profound about Dacus’ music – that for all the darkness contained within it, its narrative arc ultimately bends towards hope.