Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nothing changes

The last several years have been stormy for Lydia Loveless. Bumps in the road have been well documented: her split from her husband and bandmate Ben Lamb; a messy entanglement with and departure from her longtime label Bloodshot over sexual harassment allegations; a move from her native Ohio to North Carolina. It's tempting to call her great new record her "divorce album," the latest attempt in an unhappily long tradition of an artist working out marital woes in song and lyric, but that would be limiting. Daughter does begin with the line "Welcome to my bachelor pad" and closes with "Carolina lost my identity, or it's coming in the mail, either way I'm not the same, and it isn't just a change of place," yet in between, Loveless sings about loss and disappointments, gains and setbacks, in eternal ways, moving from her own private travails to sketch out a persona that morphs into a silhouette of rueful longing, cut with cynicism and humor. As all great artists do, she moves from experience that begins in the dark to a shared understanding of what makes all of us get up in the mornings, uncertain that today's going to be any better than yesterday.

Working with a basic lineup of Todd May and Jay Gasper on guitars and bass and George Hondroulis on drums, Loveless moves between her guitar and keyboards, nudging melancholy lyrics into the shape of melancholy songs. The alt country twang of the earlier records is gone—there's a pedal steel on only two tracks—but if the edges of her sound have been smoothed, the cowpunk propulsion tempered, the stuff she sings about's no less urgent and raw. She occasionally ups the tempo to fight the odds, as in "Never," in which she drolly identifies not as a liberated woman but as a "country bumpkin dilettante" who carries pain around; the song's upbeat against the confession, but doesn't really solve anything. What's she pushing against? Folk whom she's wronged, or been wronged by, navigating between the poles of the one who hurts and who's hurt. Often it sounds as if she's singing to herself, as in the opener "Dead Writer," where she acknowledges "I don't want to disappoint you anymore"—but who's the you? Another, or the bumpkin in the mirror? Daughter is a sad album, spiked with sorrowful imagery, and, as always, Loveless's voice, which is both assertive and vulnerable, sometimes in the same line, gives that sadness dimension and gravity, reminds us that though sadness is an abstract zone, at its most genuine it's earthbound. 

"Dead Writer"'s interest in art and legacy signals one of Daughter's chief concerns: work, the value it brings against the lofty promises it makes. A trio of songs addresses the dilemmas of a singer who's never shied away from singing about her vocation (see among others "Paid" from her debut The Only Man). In the lyrically clever "Wringer," she laments "I want to be a symphony but I'm just a singer, and all that singing ever does is run me through the ringer." In "Can't Think," she asks, "Why can't I just close the door and let the work be the reward," repeating that question later and wondering why her notebook and instruments won't allow her to be "more than yours." In the closing "Don't Bother Mountain," she sings, "I've been patiently taking my time, or I'm just lazy, your guess is as good as mine"—and the whip-lash of that burns every time I listen. The arrangement of "Can't Think" plods and move sideways, frustrated, the phrase the work is the reward repeated like a hopeful mantra.

The title track is the album's standout, and one of the greatest songs Loveless has written. She's singing, again, to a man who's made present by his absence, who's taken off or been chased off, it's unclear, but for whom the singer still has some hope. "I wanna be a part of you," she sings, but it's not enough, there's too much between them still. Then the kicker: "If I gave you a daughter would you open up?" She repeats the question later, adding, "would it be enough?" The question is enormous and also fragile, and the music is tentative, gently searching, the honesty in the proposition so hot that it has to be approached carefully lest it combust. "Daughter" is a frightfully adult song, if an adult can be someone so scared of yet hungry for communion that she stands on the outside of things, wondering. And of course an adult is that someone, whose honest skepticism is as well-worn as anyone else's courage. We have Loveless' five albums to prove it.

In "Love Is Not Enough," she implores someone to tell her how it feels "to always see everything in a major key." I'm not surprised that she has trouble imagining what that feels like. A few years back I wrote, "Every note Lydia Loveless sings sounds as if it's in a minor key."  The final words of Daughter are "everything's changed," and of course I don't believe it. Loveless will keep writing songs that stubbornly, painfully, yet with wry humor make it back to that point before—ever the adult—she has to start all over again.

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