Lucy Dacus’ excellent opening salvo “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” recalls that of a very, very different artist: Katy Perry’s “One of the Boys,” in which the tomboy who’d become one of our biggest (and most femme-presenting) pop stars initially expressed her wish to “smell like roses, not a baseball team.” The first song on Dacus’ debut album, No Burden, explores more than just the theme of attractiveness though; not only does the Virginia songwriter surmise that she could be “the cute one” because she owns a too-short skirt, but she’d rather be the gossip than the target of her friends “saying things they don’t mean,” and she’d rather be in the band than its biggest fan. Matchbox Twenty’s “Real World” found Rob Thomas fantasizing about being a superhero or making the rain, and 20 years later a woman from his same planet will dream that it’s just as far-fetched for the patriarchy to describe her with another two or three adjectives.
So any Sharon Van Etten or Angel Olsen RIYLs stemming from Dacus’ dry, triple-distilled delivery do more harm than good when she out-crunches and yes, out-funnies them anyway. No Burden was recorded in one day, and it’s fun to imagine that every song was tracked in order, so she got to feel the same Ramones-esque rush from the knockdown first four-song run — one of the year’s finest thus far — that we do hearing it. The bluesy “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” asks, “Is that a hearse or a limousine?” before detailing a Jenny Lewis-styled subject who’s “too young to play but too old to mess around,” that may be herself, as the title implies. If she was once divided into conflicting pubescent halves bent on love or attention, it’s implied that she got her fill of possibly both, with the bad-experience punchline “One of these nights I’ll sleep with the windows down.” And the droning riff is a dead ringer for forgotten ‘90s boys the Flys’ “Got You (Where I Want You).”
“Green Eyes, Red Face” and the hit-from-another-alt-era “Strange Torpedo” continue the remarkable streak of casually unspooling melodies with hidden rooms in them, getting propulsive action from radiator-like guitar fuzz and low-mixed drums that do more from across the hall than you’d think. The latter deserves to be “The Middle” of 2016 or at least “We Will Become Silhouettes,” whatever it takes to get those “whoa-oohhh-ohhh whoa-ohh-ohhhs” into an arena. Courtney Barnett, it’s on you to bring her on tour.
The remainder of No Burden is less Sharon Van Etten or Angel Olsen than it first sounds, but after the deadly, burned-journal dirge “Trust” we do hope she writes more fast ones. The seven-minute “Map on Wall” builds into a pretty parade around her torque of a voice, echoing the “Don’t make fun of me” themes of “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore” with appropriately locomotive drumming as she hopes aloud for an object of adoration to help her “survive the bending and breaking.” It makes a hell of a case for love to batten down the storm windows. The following “Direct Address” fails to make sticking mantras of “Honesty is like a kiss on the lips” or “I don’t believe in first sight” or “I fall in love with everyone I see,” but there’s plenty of promise here that she’ll move past them, and it’s sometimes fulfilled. Having proven that she can lead the band, maybe she’ll decide that being funny isn’t so bad after all.