Reviewed by: Asher Wolf
If Bob Dylan grew up in the age of Lydia Loveless, perhaps he would have made his name as a rock and roll star. He claims to have pursued folk music instead because, to paraphrase, rock struck him as shallow – fun but not sufficiently reflective of real life or the emotions it entails. Loveless resides in the same neck of the woods that Dylan abandoned, and she couldn’t be more contrary to the judgment. Real is an intense, cathartic trip through the emotional complexities of a cynical mind. Loveless’ personal explorations are sensitive but tinged with aggression, amplified by expert songcraft, ferocious delivery, and a detailed stylistic identity.
While the singer clearly shares Bob Dylan’s communicative ambition, the character and content of her songs could hardly be more different. Instead of removing herself with a veil of esoteric lyrics, Loveless opts to be as direct as possible with her poetry, exposing her personality and letting it speak for itself. Unlike most artists under the umbrella of country, she has a reputation for audacious, occasionally vulgar, content; back in 2014 the band serenaded NPR’s tiny desk with the tagline, “Honey, don’t stop giving me head”. The tunes on Real are less overtly provocative than much of her discography but arguably even more powerful. Loveless has continued to perfect her gift for taming wild thoughts and emotions into songs as accessible as they are substantial.
Her signature blend of indie rock and alternative country ably expresses the dark sentiments driving each track while also balancing them, making her songs juicy and palatable despite the frustration and chaos boiling underneath. Each of the ten songs will hook the listener on the first playthrough and continue to reveal its depth for dozens of spins afterward. “Same To You” kicks off the album with a tidal wave of jangly guitars and lush, belted vocals, dunking the listener head first into an adamant groove that builds intensity before exploding during the bridge. Centered around the line, “If it’s the same to you then I’m gone”, the track has the first of many misleading titles, names that are ostensibly positive or romantic before the lyrics turn the presumed message on its head (mirroring romantic disillusionment that the songs are prone to address). After the country romp “Longer” (“I need just a little bit longer to get over you”), “Heaven” throws a bass driven electronic funk groove into the mix, climaxing with the ironically catchy hook, “No one goes to heaven”. The title track caps of Real with an equally disdainful message: “I know just how it feels when you make it seem real.”
This pervasive cynicism helps justify the tasteful inclusion of pop hooks throughout the album. The marriage of country and pop raises red flags for some music listeners, but Loveless does it effectively and for the right reasons. Instead of grafting on earworms as accessories to attract radio stations, she builds to each hook elegantly, casting them as artistic decisions rather than commercial ones. Such moments are particularly fruitful on “Heaven” and “Real”. When Loveless employs her country style breaks into falsetto she lodges the melody into the listener’s head like a grappling hook, elevating the song to a new level of vibrancy.
And with a voice as seasoned and iconic as hers, anything can be made to sound genuine. Sounding simultaneously wise and youthful, Loveless injects a staggering amount of personality into each line. The pained and resolute emotiveness of her voice shines on the two minute solo acoustic masterpiece “Clumps” (“Love turns into lust and milk turns into clumps”), and ties every track together fortitude and raw appeal. Even the weaker songs on the album, “Out On Love” and “European”, are worth multiple listens due to textured, punked out sound she delivers. Real is Loveless’ fourth full length record, and it’s her best yet, with more dynamic arrangements and stylistic refinement than ever before. At this rate, Lydia Loveless should be a household name.