Sunday, August 21, 2016

Lydia Loveless Stays Real

If you were distractedly listening to Lydia Loveless's new album Real, heard her sing the lines, "How can love like this exist? It gets more perfect with every kiss," and worried that she'd hired songwriters fired by American Idol castoffs, fear not. The following lines:
Now I'm walking away I guess I don't understand
Why someone like you would be cruel
I don't know what the truth is but
You give me every reason to fall out of everlasting arms
remind you that this is a Loveless song, where romance is often undercut by a turn toward confusion, ruefulness, or liberation that always feels honest. On her fourth album, recorded in Loveless's hometown of Columbus, Ohio, co-producer Joe Viers has smoothed the group's sound a bit; gone is the reckless cowpunk bar-band sound of earlier records, replaced with studio finesse and laid-back pop grooves, but Loveless's yearning twang is intact, and as affecting and powerful as ever. As before, Loveless is singing about boys and sex and love, about the ideal and the bitterly real, and the cynical humor to be found in it all. "I know just what you do, I know just how it feels when you make it seem real," she sings in the title track.

I'm a fan; her show at The House (RIP) in DeKalb last fall was one of the best I've seen in years. Happily, onstage Loveless and the fellas behind her (Todd May on vocals, guitars, and keys, Ben Lamb on bass, Jay Gasper on guitars, pedal steel, and keys, and George Hondroulis on drums and percussion) play with raw edges and humorous abandon; her songs benefit from that kind of loose-limbed barreling sound, and several cuts on Real suffer from studio claustrophobia and, though Loveless maintains a sure grip on her subjects, a bit of a sonic identity crisis. On the strongest songs—"Longer," "Heaven," "Out On Love," "Clumps," the title track—Loveless's voices cuts through the gray studio weather and adds pulse and personality. She's especially effective solo and acoustic (no knock against her band), as in "Clumps," where she gives the impression of having rushed to the studio with the song, anxious to track its emotional interior before she'd had much time to flesh out a band arrangement.

The greatest cut on Real is "Midwestern Guys." Loveless is a born-and-raised Buckeye, and even though I've lived in Ohio and Illinois for most of my adult life, I still feel like an East Coast Guy, and I'm taken by her take on the men who grow up here. Recently she discussed the song's origins with David Anthony at A.V. Club: "I was thinking about it when I was writing that one, the fact that most of my friends are middle-aged men," she said. "I was laughing at myself and thinking about how those are my girlfriends—older dudes—and how they all sort of have the same story and the same upbringing."
A few of the guys in my band went to school together or grew up near each other, and I love sitting in the van listening to their weird rural Ohio school stories. Particularly Ben [Lamb, bassist], there was one story that he told me that was the trigger for that song. He had a half-brother who was doing some drug up in a tree and fell out and died. That inspired one of the verses, which ended up getting cut from the song. Maybe it was too depressing. But I don’t know, just the boredom of the ’80s and how everyone was driving around drunk, and the guys always talk about how at least two times a year people would drive into a tree. I listen to their stories and wonder how they survived. It’s a tribute to all my sensitive guy friends that are weird.
Wry, yearning, haunted, and packed with narrative detail that ignite moments, "Midwestern Guys" is prime Loveless. Though I wish she'd done more with the chorus then simply repeat the tile phrase, the details in the verses add poignancy to that litany. She addresses a man pretty common to her songs, someone to whom she's maybe attracted but of whom she's also wary, burned by his type before even as she finds it hard to resist the flame, a guy she studies because he tells her something even though neither he nor she can articulate what that is.
And after it gets dark you want to go look at the stars,
Aw, you sure know the way to my heart honey
You wanna make love, not fuck, in Schiller Park
That's how romantic you are, yeah.
The next verse gets even more explicit:
And tell me all about '83
It was a long time ago, you can sure say that again to me
All the lives lost to Natty Light in a tree
You played Pyromania until she got down on her knees between your thighs
Oh you Midwestern guys.
It's hard to know, behind the song's careful pace and the lilting melody, what the singer makes of this guy: is he still hot, or is he a loser? Easy to mock or hard to fathom, and so more attractive because of it? It's great stuff, and "Midwestern Guys," in its humor, sexiness, and longing, is one of Loveless's finest songs.
Her Twitter feed's worth following, too:

"I'd rather be lonely than ashamed." she sings in "Bilbao," a song whose prettiness is made complex by lines just like that one, and on "European" she nails the intersection of mind and body, a favorite place to linger for Loveless: "Honey, come on, I thought I was broken, then you turned me on." At its best, Real confirms that Loveless is one of our finest songwriters, that her wise, honest, and skeptical take on men and women and the lives they enrich and fuck up is always worth hearing.

You can stream Real at NPR's First Listen here.

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