California has a Bible Belt all its own—the Central Valley, a segment of the state’s interior stretching from Black Butte Lake in the north to Kern County in the south (where I was raised), just north of Los Angeles. A region rich in agriculture. And churches. In high school, a girl I met in driver’s ed asked me: I’d love to show you the faith sometime. My Bible school has one opening left. Will you join me?
Lucy Dacus’s “VBS” (short for vacation Bible school) yanks me back to that time, makes me question if or how my life would’ve changed had I said yes that summer day. Though I rejected the invitation, Dacus’s confessional spirit detailing romance, drugs, self-discovery—all of which sits steadily at the core of teenagehood—is relatably poignant in its innocence.
“In the Summer of ’07, I was sure I’d get to heaven,” the track opens, shifting its focus to a camp mate, a love interest she is trying to save: “Back in the cabin, snorting nutmeg in your bunk bed, you were waiting for a revelation of your own.” A boy whom Dacus shared is based on a former boyfriend “who loved Slayer and weed more than Jesus.”
Certainly, being a teenager is not without its embarrassments, its moments of squirming humiliation. But as humorous a picture Dacus paints, there is a troubling anxiety weaving its way through the track that tells us that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t going to be okay. That as much as we want these teenagers to return home buoyant and full-hearted, their camp experience is ultimately fruitless, and she is no more able to save herself than her death-metal-loving boyfriend. “All it did,” she sings, a voice dipped in cream, “was make the dark feel darker than before.”
The song is neither, I don’t think, a strict condemnation of Bible schools, nor is it a dismissal of religion. It’s a necessary saunter down memory lane, a nostalgic reminder of a time when self-discovery felt impossible; that day when you realized the adults in the room might not have it all figured out.