Lydia Loveless specializes in what’s best described as Rust Belt alt-country. The Columbus, Ohio, musician and her band rough up twang-bent guitars, mewling pedal steel, and lilting vocals with scruffy classic rock signifiers. As a result, Loveless’ music (especially on her 2014 breakthrough album, Somewhere Else) sounds like it belongs on a dusty dive bar jukebox—the 7-inch-filled, non-digital kind, thank you very much.
Her fourth album, Real, continues down a similar path. The album contains ragged, cigarette-drag rockers—highlighted by the slow-burning, biting “Midwestern Guys” and the jangly, ’70s-tinted “Longer”—and vintage-country twirls (“European”). Such sonic continuity is partly due to personnel: The record was produced/engineered/mixed by Joe Viers, who Loveless has worked with on her three previous solo albums, while three musicians who appeared on Somewhere Else (vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Todd May, bassist Ben Lamb, and guitarist/keyboardist/pedal steel player Jay Gasper) also return to the fold.
However, Real is more adventurous and possesses far more depth than any of Loveless’ releases to date. The soft-glow disco standout “Heaven” sounds like Cyndi Lauper covering a solo Stevie Nicks tune, for example, while “Bilbao” conjures the wiry indie-rock vibe of Death Cab For Cutie circa The Photo Album. And Real is even more notable for its quiet vulnerability. “Clumps” is a mostly acoustic rumination about the appeal of casual, intense affairs; the torchy, midtempo “More Than Ever” is a cry-in-your-beer, conflicted tale about an imperfect relationship ending.
“Out On Love” is even more stunning: Loveless sounds haunted and subdued as she speaks of perfect love—mainly because she’s now admitting to herself (and the other person) that she wasn’t emotionally available to accept such ideal romance. That unsparing self-examination permeates Real’s lyrics: Loveless’ songs speak of feeling unsettled or uncertain about a relationship’s status, or desperately wanting to fix something that’s tilted askew. There’s no trace of self-pity or any woe-is-me vibe, however; the protagonists of these songs own their mistakes, and live with the consequences, no matter whether the outcome is positive (the gritty, optimistic title track) or ambiguous (“Longer”).
In the end, Real is a sucker punch of an album that finds Loveless reckoning with life’s vicissitudes with stubborn clarity. By not shying away from writing about messy relationships, hard truths, and personal failings, she’s created an album with incredible emotional and lyrical resonance. More than that, such brutal honesty opens up the possibility that maybe a happy ending is possible, that even deeply imperfect humans can find life equilibrium—or at least an equally flawed match.