Lucy Dacus is a singer and songwriter who emerged from the thriving indie rock scene of Richmond, Virginia, in the mid-2010s. She sports a buttery voice that commands both her thoughtful rock tunes and more intimate confessionals. Born and raised in Mechanicsville just outside of Richmond, her mother was a music teacher, and Dacus grew up singing. She began writing regularly via journaling in the sixth grade, and attended concerts, connecting with the Richmond music scene throughout high school. After graduating, she tried studying film at Virginia Commonwealth University with a plan to make music on the side, but soon dropped out and concentrated on writing songs. Her debut was put together relatively last-minute when a friend who worked at Starstruck Studio in Nashville let her know they had an open day. She had assembled a band from area musicians in guitarist Jacob Blizard, bass player Christine Moad, and drummer Hayden Cotcher, and the songs, which had been written solo, were arranged for the quartet in the week leading up to a ten-hour recording session. The friend at the studio, Collin Pastore, engineered and mixed the album, which was co-produced by Dacus, Pastore, and Blizard. Richmond label Egghunt Records took interest in the results and released No Burden in early 2016. The album quickly received buzz in the indie music press, and the band did an Audiotree Live session in March that was released as a digital EP. That June, 21-year-old Dacus announced she had signed with Matador Records, which reissued No Burden in September 2016.
On the first two EPs of the How to Solve Our Human Problems trilogy, Belle and Sebastian provided their best insight and assurances to the human race at large. They touched on hope, heartbreak, love, loss, anxiety, faith, and family. For the project’s final installment, they give a lesson in do-it-yourself salvation, a sort of preventative measure against sorrow: Lower your expectations in order to avoid unrequited love and disillusionment. Avoid regret by living in the moment and staying thankful. And dance a little bit, while you’re at it.
Within the first two seconds of “Poor Boy,” you won’t be able to resist bobbing your head to the infectious beat and bass line. This R&B bop is a bit of a stylistic departure for Belle and Sebastian, and its success can be largely attributed to Inflo, a seasoned producer (The Kooks, Michael Kiwanuka) and first-time collaborator with the band. The first voice we hear on “Poor Boy” is that of the manic pixie dream girl. Sarah Martin takes on this role, responding to a hopeful suitor with pity: “Poor boy, I could never live up to your imagination. I was a crush that killed.” This is a continuation of a thematic through line over all three EPs. If, for some reason, you haven’t listened to the two previous releases, refer back to “Fickle Season” from Pt. 1 and “Same Star” from Pt. 2 for self-reliance.
“Everything Is Now, Pt. 2” is a callback to the closing track on Pt. 1. The arrangement is almost exactly the same, except for one striking difference—the words! There isn’t an evident reason why they felt the need to split this idea into two songs, but there’s a nice sense of familiarity when listening to this second installment. The lyrics come to the forefront this way, directing attention to the meaning rather than the music in general. Just as the title suggests, the song is about recognizing that the present is all we have. Martin sings about the unshakable regret of inaction: “What never happened haunts us always.” A known mistake is better than an unknown victory.
Stuart Murdoch plays the romantic victim in “Too Many Tears,” a role he seems to take on quite often throughout these EPs and the Belle and Sebastian discography as a whole. Our sad and sorry narrator can be found walking in the rain, sitting alone at the cinema, and watching other couples kiss (a bit creepy, but it’s all meant to show how truly blue he is). He’s a melodramatic fellow, singing, “The little dried-up streams on my face are painting a horror show. Just between myself and the mirror, I am a lonely soul. But I try to overcome, oh, and I’m feeling numb. I listen to my friends’ advice, but it all falls flat.” I’m torn between rolling my eyes and raising a timid fist in solidarity. The music might have something to do with this indecision—a big brass band doesn’t mix well with melancholy. However, sometimes emotions are simply this oversaturated, nearing silliness.
“There Is an Everlasting Song” resembles the Belle and Sebastian back catalog more closely than any other song on the How to Solve Our Human Problems trilogy. Its immediate accessibility is likely due to its simple arrangement and melody. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this song playing at a cozy coffee shop or covered at an acoustic open mic. The song expresses an outlook on life that acknowledges both “everlasting gladness” and “everlasting sadness.” In the first verse, Murdoch finds purpose in the promise of music and defeats darkness with the creative process, but he remarks that there are still dark moments that you can’t avoid. The final lines use birds as an admirable example of peaceful perseverance and resilience from the harshness of the world:
I love the song of birds, they sing no word of lie.
The air is cruel, the frost will catch them as they fly.
But the glorious sun returns to wake the year.
They show no fear.
“Best Friend” is about a friendship teetering on the edge of romance, finding both people intimidated by what they could become. They are hesitant and doubtful, but after all, “It’s only human not to want to be alone.” Carla Easton is the guest singer on this one, a fellow artist from Belle and Sebastian’s home in Glasgow. She’s flirtatious and sweet, drawing you in and pushing you away in the same breath. She says she’ll take you dancing, but also quick to lower expectations: “I’m not saying I will cook you dinner.” The playful pop arrangement paired with lyrical specificity like, “Tell me over steaming mac and cheese with a tray upon your knees. We can listen to the radio,” make the song feel like an outtake from the soundtrack of Hairspray. If not that, it’s at least reminiscent of the storytelling in narrative pop of the ’60s and ’70s.
Belle and Sebastian are gentle realists. Let there be no denial: There are plenty of reasons to cry. Shed a tear for the heartbroken, the unheard, the lost, for a desolate political landscape, the rotting planet—for humanity as a whole, if you’ve got the time. They dive headfirst into these waters, but not without the reminder to lift your gaze, gasp in awe, reach out with compassion, and hold on to what inspires your gratefulness. If How to Solve Our Human Problems has a thesis statement, it’s carpe diem, with care.