Lydia Loveless, ‘Real': Album Review
Lydia Loveless is stuck somewhere between bratty adolescence and world-weary cynic. "Tired of me hanging around, looking like I just lost a friend / Well, if I did, you don't know who, he goes to another school," she sings as a form of kiss-off on "Longer," the best song on her fourth album, Real. Later, on "Midwestern Guys," she sighs, "You played Pyromania until she got down on her knees between your thighs" like it's just something guys do.
It's pretty much always been this way for Loveless. In the past, she's sung of sex as a not-so-surefire cure for numbness ("Head," from her last album, 2014's excellent Somewhere Else) but still manages to get all tingly like a giddy teen from time to time (see 2013's "Boy Crazy").
At 25, she's already one of the best songwriters of her generation, and if Real isn't as immediately grabbing as Somewhere Else, it is a deeper and more rewarding listen. It's her most musically adventurous and mature record; she takes more risks than she did on her last album, which shot her alt-country twang through a riff-powered, Rolling Stones-like filter. Loveless mostly leaves the country behind on Real, folding in everything from disco glitter ("Heaven") to a stirring ballad that sounds like prime Madonna ("Out on Love").
But it's the expanded musical arsenal that puts the album in new territory. Synths whoosh in and out of tracks, sometimes adding haunting ambiance, other times -- like the buzz-saw stabs that pierce "Longer" -- they add colorful texture to the songs.
In addition to "Longer," the hook-stuffed first single, the album is bookended by its most traditional-sounding cuts, the opening "Same to You" and the closing title track. Here, Loveless piles on the type of guitar-fueled power pop that drove Somewhere Else. Those moments aren't as frequent on Real, but the grown-up voice behind "Bilbao" and the barely two-minute mournful acoustic number "Clumps" is ready to move on.
That doesn't mean she doesn't still have her issues. She -- or rather, her characters; Loveless often writes from others' perspectives -- rarely navigates the path of her heart in a straight line. Love is messy, and so is sex, and when the two shack up in her songs, there's usually nothing but trouble, or a tangle of neuroses, ahead.
But Real tries to make sense of it all. "I'm in my room, but I want to jump off the roof / I'm just waiting for a boy who's gonna tell me not to do it," she sings on the title song as a weepy pedal steel underpins her big voice. Still, she's hopeful, even when everything seems stacked against her. It's a pivotal moment for Loveless, who can't help but to wear her emotions on her sleeve, even as she defiantly brushes them off. She still has some growing up to do, but Real is the sound of one of the decade's most promising artists taking another giant step toward greatness.
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