I was smitten, musically smitten, when Bloodshot Records unleashed Lydia Loveless’ Indestructible Machine in late 2011. On December 31, I declared my love for the record by calling it my favorite album for the year, “…reminding me of the most fearless days of early alt.country. The early days of the Bloodshot label when the edges were sharp and bordering on dangerous.” “Bad Way To Go”, “Steve Earle”, “How Many Women”. It was the kind of musical fuck off that had become increasingly rare, a sloppy alt.country masterpiece that was pure piss ‘n vinegar, pure punk. “Jesus Was a Wino”, for godsake!
The fact is, I immediately feared a backlash, a rash of copycat cartoon stereotypes. Even worse, I was afraid of a wholesale mainstream embrace of Lydia Loveless. More secretly, I prayed nightly to the alt.country gods that she wouldn’t “sell out”, soften her lovely wounding edges and release the love theme from some damn rom-com …
So what happened? Well, Lydia Loveless matured. She grew up as an artist, releasing Somewhere Else on Bloodshot in 2014 (far too long to wait for a follow-up). This was the year of Sturgill’s game-changing Metamodern Sounds, Benjamin Booker’s glorious wreck of a debut, Cory Branan’s No Hit Wonder. Jeez, Somewhere Else didn’t even claw its way into my top 30! As I recall, I missed the mess. In retrospect, Somewhere Else has aged well. It’s not the daisy duke-d hellcat from 2011. “Really Wanna See You”, “Wine Lips”, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud”. It’s edgy urban roots punk, heavy on the guitar and sticky with attitude. Without the bow-shot of Indestructible Machine I probably would’ve heartily embraced the CD as a revelation. Somewhere Else is smarter, stronger writing, backed by more deliberate arrangements and stories that were probably much closer to the Loveless home.
Fast forward a couple more years – we’ll set aside last year’s poptastic Boy Crazy EP for today. As well as that puzzlingly faithful Prince tribute she split with Branan. Earlier this Summer we began to get advance notice of Real, a new Lydia Loveless collection. Between you and me, I braced myself for relative disappointment. Early interviews quoted her as almost dismissive of her early work. The cover of Indestructible Machine portrays the artist as a gasoline swilling hick, and the music toed that party line. Let’s face it, 2011’s Lydia was a caricature, a cartoon fantasy of a fiercely confident hellion who chained men by the balls. Gotta admit it’s still great music, though …
My initial response to Real fairly mirrored my reception for Somewhere Else, though by now it’s been several years since Machine. The first single, “Longer”, launches with the muffled shouts of a punkish countdown and scratchy electric guitars that alternate with a bit of pedal steel and the occasional synth glitch. Living with it for a bit, allowing it room to breathe, it’s actually a really strong single: Sittin’ in the dark / Talkin’ about my plans / To anyone who can hear / Over this shitty Indianapolis band. Chiming guitars and breezy background “Aaa-aaahs” define a sweet pop chorus that recalls a tougher strain of late 80s new wave.
That dated production actually carries through a handful of cuts on Real. Heck, “Heaven” could’ve been a hit for Patty Smyth and Scandal or the Motels. Synths and keys crop up in a support role now and then, though rarely to the detriment of the song. “Midwestern Guys” boasts electric piano a’la Michael McDonald period Doobies, but it might be one of the record’s most direct links to Loveless’ earlier ballbusters: Tell me all about ’83 / That was a long time ago, you can sure say that again to me / The lives lost in that light in a tree / And you played Pyromania till she got down on her knees / Between your thighs. Like Somewhere, these are largely songs about relationships. More specifically, they’re about the singer’s longing and desperation in light of stuff that’s just not working out as promised.
“European” lopes along engagingly with a rootsy scratch and a pleading message: Tell you secrets in an alley in New Orleans / Let you real my palm, I’d feel your jeans / Watch your lips move till I don’t know what the words mean / Ain’t there some things you feel like you can only say to me? No matter how much her music wanders from its alt.country roots, Loveless’ voice continues to betray that appealing yawp and twang. It’s a glorious instrument that can spit fire one moment and float angelically the next, ranging from pleading to accusatory in a breathy sigh. Try the uncharacteristically subdued “Bilbao” for a quick lesson in her remarkable abilities.
Alongside “Longer”, “Same To You” sets the highwater mark for Real. A guitar charged midtempo rocker, it brings all these strengths to the fore. Freed from her earlier reliance on corny crutches, Lydia Loveless grounds the song in a deep and satisfying roots groove. Aware of her songwriting potential, she shows a talent for barbed lyrical moments that have as much to do with rural realities as with urban edge. At its heart, Real is a collection as rooted in punk as her 2011 unveiling. To her credit, Loveless has simply matured into an artist capable of soliciting a wider range of genuine emotional response. If she still hasn’t fully discovered just who she is, that’s fine. I’m along for the ride, and still smitten.-Scott Foley