Nostalgia is not a new topic of exploration in music. From recent disco-inspired records to the obsession with 80s’ synth-pop to the resurgence of pop-punk aesthetics, popular musicians love to reference the past as a way of paying homage to the sounds they loved before they became musicians themselves. Many of these homages are well-done thanks to a sonic blueprint that was successfully laid out by the forerunners. This has allowed new musicians to build on top of a steady foundation.
Nostalgia as a central theme for an album, both tonally and lyrically is easy to mess up. Without skilled writing and the ability to separate a romanticized ideal of the past from the truth of the experience, exploring nostalgia can feel like nothing more than a trite rehashing of “the good ol’ days.”
Despite that, Lucy Dacus’ Home Video does not feel that way. On her third album released on June 25, 2021, Dacus turns her attention to the memories she built as a teenager through the distant lens of adulthood. There is no romanticization, only a sharp and honest look at the past as it happened, coupled with penetrating wisdom gained from growing up and seeing things with more clarity.
“Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood in my pulsing veins,” is the opening lyric on the first track, “Hot & Heavy.” As the lead single of the album, the song can be viewed as an abstract for the central message. The song dwells on a relationship between Dacus and someone from her past which ended with Dacus leaving their shared town. “When I went away, it was the only option / Couldn’t trust myself to proceed with caution.”
In a statement with Rolling Stone, Dacus talked about the track and said, “I thought that I was writing about an old friend, but I realized along the way that it was just about me outgrowing past versions of myself. So much of life is submitting to change and saying goodbye even if you don’t want to.”
Change is central to nostalgia. It is the mechanism by which we compare the different versions of ourselves from the past to who we are today, and sometimes that comparison can be painful. Other times, it can be liberating. On the guitar-heavy “First Time,” Dacus croons matter-of-factly that, “You can’t feel it for the first time a second time.” This line can apply to many things: love, hate, pleasure, desire. The crux of the song is how other people can change us, for better or worse. “I can’t go back to who I was before I met you / I can’t undo what I’ve done and I wouldn’t want to / I wouldn’t want to,” she sings.
Similar themes arise on “Brando,” an upbeat and funny track about being involved with someone who never quite makes the time to get to know you the way you want to know them. In the chorus, Dacus calls out, “All I need for you to admit is that you never knew me / Like you thought you did.” Here, we can see Dacus condemning her subject for the ultimate sin of not caring enough about uncovering the “real” her. The track also highlights the pretentious cloak of armour some teenagers use to make themselves feel mightier. Lyrics like “You called me cerebral, I didn’t know what you meant / But now I do, would it have killed you to call me pretty instead?” to “You say, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ / Thinking I wouldn’t understand the reference.” This all adds to the misunderstanding, all while painting the portrait of someone more into cultivating their own self-image than an actual relationship with Dacus.
On the album’s strangest song sonically, “Partner in Crime,” Dacus’ auto-tuned vocals add a layer of disguise to a song about a relationship with someone much older. This track perfectly highlights Dacus’ ability to reflect on childhood matter-of-factly. The entire song rests on childish notions of love and lust, such as lying about drinking coffee to seem older and picking petals while asking, “Do you love me? Do you love me not?” She describes being dropped off around a corner so as not to expose her love interest to her parents.
She doesn’t condemn her object of affection for their relationship. “When you asked my age, I lied” and “Let the record show / I walked in on my own.” This demonstrates an earnest apology on her part. It’s a beautiful exploration of longing to be taken seriously as an adult, but seeking validation in the wrong place. It’s almost as if Dacus becomes the subject of “Brando,” trying to appear older and wiser than she truly is, all while not understanding that her age is most definitely the reason why it won’t work out.
Another theme explored on the album is trauma. Trauma is the dark underbelly of nostalgia. It’s the part of the past that we don’t want to latch onto, and yet the grip remains tight on our memories. On “Thumbs,” the album’s darkest song lyrically, Dacus describes the urge to kill a friend’s deadbeat father: “I would kill him / If you let me / I would kill him / Quick and easy.” The song is an ode to choosing one’s own path to escape trauma, even if that means breaking away from someone you are supposed to love unconditionally. “You two are connected by a pure coincidence / Bound to him by blood, but baby, it’s all relative.”
“Thumbs,” is a great contrast to “Please Stay,” a track about trying to help someone you love gain the will to live. It’s a heavy track as well, but it acts as a reminder to those struggling with their mental health that life is worth living. The entire song is a helpless plea, as the title suggests. “You tell me you love me like it’ll be the last time / Like you’re playing out the end of a storyline / I say I love you too because it’s true / What else am I supposed to do?” The song ends with bargaining: “Call me if you need a friend or never talk to me again / But please stay.”
My personal favourite songs on the album have to do with Dacus’ retrospective unpacking of her relationships with other women. On “Cartwheel,” Dacus turns her attention to the phase of girlhood where the weight of womanhood starts to invade the innocence of childhood. “You like your body pulling at the seams / You’re not prepared for what the future brings.”
Dacus recalls on the track feeling betrayed when her friend tells her about how she lost her virginity. “When you told me ‘bout your first time / The soccer player at the senior high / I felt my body crumple to the floor / Betrayal like I’d never felt before.” In an interview about “Cartwheel” with Pitchfork, Dacus said, “The day that she told me she had sex for the first time, I felt so betrayed. Not mad exactly, but mourning something I couldn’t pin down.” The entire song explores that mourning by describing an adolescent summer in vague terms that combine to tell the story of losing what makes childhood so magical: “Spell broke at daybreak / Light another candle on the cake / Cartwheel and a broken wrist”. The mourning is the realization that childhood — specifically the carefreeness of girlhood and all that comes with it — is over.
The final track of the album, “Triple Dog Dare,” is retrospection at its best. At eight minutes long, the track chronicles the blossoming and breaking of a young queer romance. It’s the kind of track that can only be written with a certain level of adult self-awareness — the protagonist doesn’t seem to understand her own feelings towards her friend as they are unfolding. “And the kid at the counter is gawking at your grace / 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,” she sings softly. “It’s what you do, but it’s not you I blame.”
Dacus sings about not understanding why the two can’t be together and why they are being pulled apart. “I’m staring at my hands / Red, ruddy skin, I don’t understand / How did they betray me? What did they do? / I never touched you how I wanted to.” Dacus said in an interview with Pitchfork that the song is about a real relationship she had in high school. “We had a super tight friendship, and were probably a little bit in love. But her mom saw what was going on in a way that I didn’t,” she said.
“Triple Dog Dare” firmly roots itself in childhood with the call for the love interest to run away with Dacus, “It’s a triple dog dare, you’re a chicken if you don’t.” Dacus said that she likes the song’s ending because “they made a choice and exited childhood” by running away to begin the next part of their lives. Despite the ending being fictional, it closes out Home Video on a beautiful note.
Dacus’ Home Video does not romanticize the past, but doesn’t condemn it either. Instead, she answers the call of nostalgia with a peaceful nod, acknowledging that she can visit the past for a bit, but won’t stay for very long. Check out Home Video below.