Home Video: a Foreword
There are a thousand truisms about home and childhood, none of them true but all of them honest. It’s natural to want to tidy those earliest memories into a story so palatable and simple that you never have to read again. A home video promises to give your memories back with a certificate of fact— but the footage isn’t the feeling. Who is just out of frame? What does the soft focus obscure? How did the recording itself change the scene?
Some scrutinize the past and some never look back and Lucy Dacus, a lifelong writer and close reader, has long been the former sort. “The past doesn’t change,” Dacus said on a video call during that interminable winter of video calls. “Even if a memory is of a time I didn’t feel safe, there’s safety in looking at it, in its stability.”
This new gift from Dacus, Home Video, her third album, was built on an interrogation of her coming-of-age years in Richmond, Virginia. Many songs start the way a memoir might—“In the summer of ’07 I was sure I’d go to heaven, but I was hedging my bets at VBS”—and all of them have the compassion, humor, and honesty of the best autobiographical writing. Most importantly and mysteriously, this album displays Dacus’s ability to use the personal as portal into the universal. “I can’t hide behind generalizations or fiction anymore,” Dacus says, though talking about these songs, she admits, makes her ache.
While there’s a nostalgic tint to much of Dacus’s work, the obliquely told stories in past songs are depicted here with greater specificity. Triple Dog Dare recounts young, queer love complicated and forbidden by religion. The toxic relationship depicted in Partner in Crime is filled with pining, deceit, and meeting curfew. (“My heart’s on my sleeve/ it’s embarrassing/ the pulpy thing, beating.”) Christine is an elegiac ballad about a close friend vanishing into an inhibiting relationship.
As is often the case with Dacus, these songs are a study in contrast. In Hot & Heavy, she sings powerfully about blushing and diffidence, while the song Thumbs contains an elegant fantasy about the brutal murder of a close friend’s no-good father. After performing Thumbs during the nearly nonstop tours for her first two albums, it quickly became a white whale to Dacus fans, who have been counting the days until its release just as we’ve all awaited the end of this endless quarantine.
While all that touring made Lucy long to re-root in her hometown, her sudden acclaim filled Richmond with funhouse distortions of herself. People she didn’t know were looking at her like they knew her better than she knew herself. Strangers showed up at her front door. “You used to be so sweet,” she sings on the opening track, “now you’re a firecracker on a crowded street.” That truism, both true and false—you can’t go home again—seemed to taunt her at the very time she needed home the most.
In August 2019, after a too much touring then a month of silence, it was time to go back to Trace Horse Studio in Nashville—Jacob Blizard, Collin Pastore, and Jake Finch, her loyal friends and collaborators were at her side again. Dacus’s boygenius bandmates, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker sang a loving chorus on Please Stay and Going Going Gone while each recorded solo songs during the same session. Dacus’s resulting record—full of arrhythmic heartbeat percussion and backgrounds of water-warped pipe organ— was mixed by Shawn Everett and mastered by Bob Ludwig.
Loyal Dacus listeners may notice that the melodies here are lower and more contained, at times feeling as intimate as a whisper. The vulnerability of these songs, so often about the intense places where different sorts of love meet and warp, required this approach. “When you told me ‘bout your first time, a soccer player at the senior high,” she sings in Cartwheel, “I felt my body crumple to the floor. Betrayal like I’d never felt before.” Yet in Partner in Crime, Dacus marries content and form in a strikingly different way, using uncharacteristic Autotune in a song about duplicity and soft coercion.
That Home Video arrives at the end of this locked down, fearful era seems as preordained as the messages within. “I don’t necessarily think that I’m supposed to understand the songs just because I made them,” Dacus says into a screen, “I feel like there’s this person who has been in me my whole life and I’m doing my best to represent them.” After more than a year of being homebound, in a time when screens and video calls were sometimes our only form of contact, looking backward was a natural habit for many. If we haven’t learned it already, this album is a gorgeous example of the transformative power of vulnerability. Dacus’s voice, both audible and on the page, has a healer’s power to soothe and ground and reckon.
—Catherine Lacey, February 2021, Chicago, IL
“Tie me up.”
This is the ultimatum that closes “Mustang,” a fiery post-punk synth-rock sprint and the second track on Live Forever, the full-length debut record from D.C.-based musician and singer Bartees Strange. The dare — “Tie me up” — ties back to the title of the song, and the place Strange grew up: Mustang, Oklahoma, an overwhelmingly white and racist sundown town on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. In Mustang, he says, “I didn’t let myself be seen. I held myself down so I could make people feel more comfortable around me.” On his new record, Strange has ground that former conviction to dust, and replaced it with a new one: “‘Just tie me up.’ I’d rather die than not be myself again.”
Live Forever is a direct and stunning result of this conviction. It’s impossible to divorce the reality of Strange’s personal trajectory from the intricate and idiosyncratic 13-track saga on record: it spans gentle, Moses Sumney-meets-Yves Jarvis minimalism, Killers-ish indie rock vigor with post-punk cracks in its danceable veneer, the throbbing industrial alt-soul of Algiers, Justin Vernon’s acoustic tenderness, and the volatile, unforgiving production and delivery of Death Grips. Simply put, it is a combination that none but Strange could execute under — and as a result of — precise circumstances.
Strange recorded in a barn studio in Wassaic, New York with a handful of close friends and collaborators. He was used to backing up other projects, toeing a line set by others. This time, he set the pace. “I’m often the only Black guy in the room when I’m playing in a band or working in studio and I’ll be honest, I don’t think the engineer always knew what I wanted to capture, what I was trying to do or what I was referencing. I wanted a space where I could be in control of how it was gonna sound, and have people there to check me that I trust.” The tracks reflect their creator: plural, shifting, honest, and raw.
The LP drops on the heels of Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, Strange’s spread-like-wildfire EP of The National covers. The EP served as a tender love letter to his favorite band and an introduction to his own carefully-curated musical aesthetics. Besides drawing glowing coverage from Billboard, Stereogum, and The Fader, the EP garnered rosy co-signs from a grocery list of celebrities like actor Ryan Reynolds, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, poet Hanif Abdurraqib, and The National’s own Matt Berninger. A limited vinyl pressing of the EP on Bandcamp sold out quickly. This is only the beginning.
Born in England, Strange was raised in Mustang between church choirs, country music and hardcore bands before forming his own hardcore projects.
But leaving Mustang was about learning to live with it, too. “I realized that the thing I was trying to run away from — Oklahoma, Mustang, my upbringing — was actually the thing that’s separated me, and made my music worth making,” Strange says. “The thing that I hated most about myself was the thing that could possibly separate me from other people.”
This process of acceptance is coded across the record, but it’s most clearly watermarked on “Boomer,” a jangly guitar-rock track with Strange rapping on the verses about getting stoned with his dad for the first time. He explains that his dad praised him for his moves since leaving Mustang. “Things are changing,” he says. “I can change too, and this is who I want to be.”
“Boomer” is followed by “Kelly Rowland,” a trippy, looping guitar sample that transports Strange’s melodic raps before “Stone Meadows,” which starts ethereal before bass, drums, and synth kick-start its pulse. Then comes “Mossblerd,” a singular and ferocious flow of electrical disturbances, warped beats, wobbling feedback, and shotgun shells as Strange lays down the gauntlet in an ashen tone: “Genres keep us in our boxes/Keep us from our commas/Keep us n*ggas hopeless/Keep us from our options.” It touches on some of the darknesses that underpin Live Forever, like his older brother’s time in the prison-industrial complex (“I ain’t air the club out but my brother did it/He did 12 in county, might as well be Quentin”) and seeing his nephew boxed in by racist genre coding (“I just seen his son out mixing beats on Insta/He don’t know no better, he just getting fucked up off these genres”).
The track is rooted in Strange’s frustration as a Black musician in an industry built on and still shaped by white supremacy. “I don’t think people know quite where to place me, and that’s hurt me, because they just don’t place me anywhere,” he says. “I wanted to write something that expressed my anger with how music is received right now for Black artists and for queer artists, how frustrating it is for me that I can’t be more than one thing.” The word ‘mossblerd’ is a Strange original, riffing on Mossberg shotguns; Strange envisions himself “bringing the mossblerd” to white execs to get what he’s owed.
“I wanna fly close to the sun too,” he says. “I wanna have the opportunity to fail. I want the same shot everybody else gets.”
Throughout the manicured house rave-up of “Flagey God,” the jazzy indie-rock hurtle of “In A Cab,” the crashing guitar crescendos of “Far,” and the acoustics and full-bodied vocals of “Fallen For You,” Strange’s powerful voice relays the conflict between his rooting in and departure from his childhood. As a kid in the south, everything around him seemed a threat: tornadoes, heat, guns, white people. “There is something so grim and beautiful about the joy and sadness of the Black community in rural areas,” says Strange. “We have a whole lot of fun, and we eat good food, and we have a good fuckin’ time, but we all do it with this understanding that we could all lose it so quickly.”
On Live Forever, Strange hasn’t exorcised this past, but rather has come to an understanding with it. It is an unfinished process (“I’m still grappling with trusting myself enough to keep it together,” he says), but with this record, he has cemented his place as a visionary musician, a vital storyteller, and an artist who refuses to mute his lived experience.