The first time I heard “Bilbao” from Lydia Loveless’ new album ‘Real,’ it was like I was hearing a voice repeating inside my head. As I felt the emotions swelling, I could hear the whispered line from 10cc’s great pop song “I’m Not In Love” repeating “Big boys don’t cry… big boys don’t cry.” The reverie puts you in a trance and when things come to a climactic bridge, her voice soars to majestic heights, wrapped around a wall of sound that feels like she’s reaching the pinnacle of her career. And when she comes back with a killer one-lite fade out, it just about does you in, in a few spectacular minutes that sum up all the attributes of the great expansiveness of ‘Real.’ I just cried inside – I admit it.
Loveless juxtaposes the stellar pop craft of songs like the dreamy “Bilbao” and outer worldliness of “Heaven” with true grit and emotional drama at every turn that pervades ‘Real.’ If love is a battlefield, she puts you on the front lines. We should have gotten a strong clue in the opening track “Same To You” in which she cuts to the chase, singing “I almost killed you, honey give me one more chance.” In the harrowing lament of “More Than Ever” she exclaims: “If self-control is what you want I’d have to break off all of my fingers.” Later in the song when she reveals a damning indictment of a lover’s mistress, the carnage and collateral damage are powered behind the unison of the band’s three guitars. Loveless bares emotions that are so raw, that using the word vulnerability seems not only to come up short but is almost trite as a descriptor.
The self-doubts and self-examinations are not new themes, but Loveless’ head-on ‘Real’ is filled with love’s landmines, and she keeps tripping over them and telling of the battle scars worn in its aftermath. The glistening and poppy guitars cut from the Byrds and Big Star mask a sense of direness and fatalism. In “Clumps,” Loveless strikes the analogy of love with spoiled milk that turns into clumps. “Everything dies,” she decrees in a less than two-minute vignette in which she vacillates on the tightrope of need and distance. But masked in the disco dance floor groove of “Heaven,” our connections seem illusive. If we meet at the gates, we’ll just turn away because nothing last forever and no-one goes to heaven.
On ‘Real’ there is very little that is typical of Loveless’ previous records. Jay Gasper’s pedal steel on “Same To You” has accentuated her emotions in the past. The subtle honky tonk groove and shuffle underlying “European” has a familiar feel, but ‘Real’ is truly a transformative record. In its spectacular sound and production and realization of the band’s collective talents, Loveless sheds the cowpunk and alt-country labeling that has tried to frame her.
Guitarist Todd May’s back-up vocals in “Bilbao” buttress and amplify Loveless’ most emotional and tender moments. Gasper’s subtle keys provide a Beatles-esque ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ that adds to the sadness under the melody. The build of “Bilbao,” and the lush, layered Beach Boys-like vocal crescendo in “Longer” are aspirational and new heights for the five. The bedrock drumming of George Hondroulis and the subtle but propulsive bass playing of Ben Lamb turn up the urgency when Loveless’ emotions demand it. In “Out On Love,” Gasper’s keys and looped sounds ricochet off the melody and fill in its tensions, giving it an eerie quasi-Eastern feel. The dissonance he and May explore and wrap around “Out On Love” gives the song its moody, trippy psychological edge. In “Midwestern Guys,” the band’s guitars are more dense and brash and slightly twangy as they come straight from the school of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers.’
For the past year Lydia Loveless has been playing songs from ‘Real’ live, and leaving clues about the album like a trail of cookie crumbs. But nothing could have prepared us for the grandeur and majestic beauty of the album’s sound. It reminds me of a comment Bruce Springsteen made about why he recorded “Land of Hopes and Dreams” more than a decade after playing it live. He said that songs need to have an authority and reference point that only a recording on an album can provide.
‘Real’ makes you feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster and there’s a sense of feeling like you’re left on an emotional precipice. In all of its trials and tribulations, there is a sort of celebratory feel that culminates in the album’s ending title track and speaks for the whole album. In some ways the record feels like a cliffhanger. You expect her to come up with one more verse or chorus in “Clumps.” In “Midwestern Guys” you expect some resolve in this masterful put-down. For those who saw the documentary “Who is Lydia Loveless?” it’s hard not to wonder what ‘Real’ would have sounded like with its intended track “Desire.”
I found the record to be further compelling with all of its geographical references sprinkled throughout the songs. There’s the dreamy lament set in the separatist Spanish town of Bilbao. There’s intrigue in “Same To You” of what happened in Texas (“That’s where I almost killed you, I’m just about to crack”). The random reference to hearing a shitty band in Indianapolis (in “Longer”) and “telling you secrets in an alley in New Orleans” (from “European”) expand the locales. Closer to home, the setting for “Midwestern Guys” is in Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio. They give the record an unanticipated sense of adventure that makes you want to come along for the ride, derived from Loveless’ journal entries and storybook.
The landscape of ‘Real’ is so much vaster than we could have possibly imagined or hoped for. On ‘Real,’ Loveless turns conventions upside – shedding images of who she is, expectations of what she should sound like and trusting herself and her band to follow the music where it leads.