What’s great about Lydia Loveless’s songs is that the jet fighter landing gear goes up just as the wagon wheels fall off. She can only ascend to Mount Olympus heights by hitting rock bottom; her lethal afterburner drawl hits full power at her drunkest and most powerless. She’s a proudly awkward and antisocial Midwesterner, swathed in a torn jean jacket of many colors, who moans pained come-ons like, “When I kissed you on the lips I was bein’ / European,” and hopes that you’ll be too smitten to recall the song’s previous lines, which are, “What’s it gonna take for you to love me inside? / Man, I’m standin’ on your lawn, and the grass is on fire.” She’s just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her, and also she’s burning his house down.
Loveless is a 25-year-old resident of Columbus, Ohio, who today releases Real, her fourth album of what you might describe as “alt-country,” but very quietly and nervously, lest she find out about it and come find you and punch you in the face. But it turns out that her bare-knuckle-brawler image is just as ill-fitting, however honestly you might come by the assumption. Her first truly great song was “Steve Earle,” off 2011’s Indestructible Machine, a lurid fantasy (?) in which she is stalked by the titular deified outlaw-country superhero. Opening line: “He read an article that said I liked to do cocaine.”
This sort of thing led enraptured critics to describe Loveless as a “cowpunk queen” and so forth, which is where the real trouble started. Attempts to live up to that corny image were, thankfully, disastrous; she soon found herself dutifully writing and immediately scrapping “an entire album of very boring country songs.” She pivoted instead to what became 2014’s outstanding Somewhere Else, a monument to bone-hard soft-rock ferocity and vulnerability, from “Head” (her attempt to write “a really sad song about oral sex”) to the startling “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” whose opening lines are, “Well, Verlaine shot Rimbaud ’cause he loved him so / And honey, that’s the way I love you.” (Loveless owns the word honey, as a fraught term of endearment, as thoroughly as Smokey Robinson owns the word baby.) “Somewhere Else,” the song, basically finds the break in Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and rides it until you break down in tears.
Oof. Give me a minute.
Okay, so, Real. The only thing more fun than Lydia Loveless albums are Lydia Loveless interviews, in which she is compelled to colorfully refute the very colorful “‘Billy Badass’ persona” those albums convey. It’s not entirely your fault, though, if you assume she wears brass knuckles to the movies and whiles away her evenings drinking beer out of other people’s mouths. Her voice is a Howitzer of melancholy rage and vicious yearning; her social media presence is a hilariously brusque attempt to explode the “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” meme by making her worst and her best virtually indistinguishable.
All of which might make Real, at first blush/bruise, seem less sweet and romantic and unguarded than it genuinely is. “Same to You” kicks off with a world-class Wheels Up / Wheels Off moment, a stormy moper driven by pedal steel and colossal ’80s drums that peaks on the bridge, when Loveless wails, “Well, is there nothing I can do to make you look at me that way again?” Then she kicks it into hyperdrive: “CAN’T YOU JUST WAVE GOODBYE?”
There will forever be enough twang here to justify putting her on the same tour bus as Neko Case or Kathleen Edwards, but Fleetwood Mac’s barbed-but-chill vibes still hover blissfully overhead. A song like “Heaven,” bathed in billion-dollar reverb and humid new wave lushness, recalls the Mac’s all-universe elevator-opera, the 1987 classic Tango in the Night. Sonically, Real’s closest modern analogue might be The Voyager, former Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis’s 2014 foray into honky-tonk-tinged stardust; lyrically, Loveless is clearly fond of Mitski, the current alt-rock sensation who sings hushed, volcanic songs so wounded and raw they feel like acts of violence. There is likewise plenty of fury here: “Midwestern Guys” does not paint a flattering portrait of the grouchy, oblivious, Pyromania-obsessed lunkheads it takes as terse inspiration, and elsewhere, Loveless sings the words “when your mistress is pounding harder on the door” with unsettling gusto.
But the songs that hit the hardest here are the gentlest. The stacked, legitimately angelic chorus of stacked ahhhhs that pull “Longer” heavenward. (Her eye roll at the onset of that video encapsulates her appeal pretty well.) The wistful “Bilbao,” where you spend the whole chorus — “Marry me / There’s nowhere in the world that I’d rather be” — braced for a shiv that never comes. Or “Out on Love,” which is even gauzier and more heartrending, leaving you likewise fixating on the line “I miss you more every day,” every last syllable a shiv all its own.
Loveless is not quite as lonely as she might appear: She’s married to her bass player, and her career to date is a somewhat loopy family affair. (Her father was her drummer up until the point where she gently fired him, in part for being too old; of her new, much younger touring drummer, she explained, “I don’t feel like he’s going to die.”) But she gives off that distinctly Midwestern alone-in-a-crowd, sad-punk-in-the-beerlight vibe, and what makes her records so great are the myriad ways they subvert the clichés more wayward admirers keep flinging at her. She’s a lover, not a fighter, but she knows that the distinction gets awfully blurry, too. Real is the sound of someone floating in the stars, but reaching tenderly for the gutter.