Lydia Loveless and The Road To "Real"
It was a busy August weekend to say the least. Almost a year after it was recorded, Lydia Loveless’ fourth album Real was finally released. The next morning she appeared on CBS This Morning playing two new tracks from Real (and one more released online). But by Saturday night it all seemed a little bit in the rear view mirror when Loveless met the Replacements’ bassist Tommy Stinson, opening for him with an acoustic solo show in Cincinnati.
The night began with a curious photo appearing on Facebook of Stinson holding a copy of Real in his left hand. “So I know that this isn’t probably that big of a deal,” Chip Midnight wrote in his accompanying post, “but I just bought Tommy Stinson a copy of Lydia Loveless’ new album.”
For Loveless who started playing bass as a 13 year-old in a Midwestern band, meeting her favorite Replacement was a moment of a lifetime. It became even more surreal as Stinson told her how much he liked her music and asked how her band came up with the arrangement for the album’s first single “Longer.”
Loveless was just a baby when the Replacements were in the last days. She didn’t hear Pleased To Meet Me until she was seventeen, a time when she was listening to a lot of country and punk music. It was a time when she admits she was unsophisticated in her musical tastes. When a boyfriend put on the album Tim, for the first time the realization occurred to her: this is really what I want to do.
“When I was younger, I just wanted to write my songs and I didn’t give a shit what was going to happen after that,” she recalled on Jeremy Dylan’s podcast My Favorite Album. She admitted it was hard to bridge the gap between being the “hillbilly kid” who wanted to play country but knew she could do something more interesting. “Discovering the Replacements helped me realize I could write songs instead of thinking about what genre I had to fit in or who I had to please,” she told Dylan.
Loveless’ realization of not being afraid to try new things explains the making of Real, The landscape of the record 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.
Real is truly a transformative record. In its spectacular sound and production, Real is truly a transformative record in which Loveless sheds the “cow punk” and honky tonk labeling that have been attempts to frame her.
Last summer on a hot July night, Loveless began her summer tour in Harrisburg by announcing that she had finished recording a new album. After the show, she chatted with me on a patio outside the Stage On Herr. The band had cut seven songs in the Spring. The intent was to make demos but they liked them so much they decided it was the album. They went back in the studio to cut three or four more songs and considered the album ready for mixing.
“I always say 'We're not Def Leppard'," Loveless said of not wanting to harp on a record for three months. "We're never going to be in the studio for more than a month." What she didn’t know then was it would be more than a year for Real to see the light of day. During that time she’d switch management and booking agents. That night, she played what would become the album’s first single, “Longer.” It was written about her friend Joey who died from a drug overdose. Her voice got softer and she looked away and mentioned that it was coming upon the anniversary of the passing. He had been the guitarist in her sister’s band The Girls.
“It’s hard to say something is about one thing because I take inspiration from so many little things,” she said of her writing, “but that song was definitely about Joey. I basically got really depressed and watched a lot of Lifetime movies and wrote that song.”
Loveless revealed was looking for more of a “poppy” sound for the song. The general sound she was trying to get was grounded in Eighties pop. Her dad listened a lot to the Cars, a huge influence and inspiration for her. Of the band’s arrangement she laughed, “It’s definitely more poppy than when I’m solo and depressed and singing a song about someone dying.”
In the recorded version of “Longer,” the lush, layered harmonies and Beach Boys-like vocal crescendo is aspirational and reaches new heights for her band. Then there is “Bilbao” whose live performance understates the wonderment of its album version. Like in “Longer,” guitarist Todd May’s back-up vocals in “Bilbao” buttress and amplify Loveless’ most emotional and tender moments. 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. Jay Gasper’s subtle keys provide a Beatles-esque "Strawberry Fields Forever" accent that adds to the sadness underlying the melody. And when she comes back with a killer one-line fade out left to repeat itself, it just about does you in, in a few spectacular minutes that sum up all the attributes of the great expansiveness of Real.
On the day of the release of Real, Loveless made an appearance on Live Ledge, the weekly podcast by host Scott Hudson on realpunkradio.com. In addition to his broadcasting duties and writing on music for the Argus Ledger, Hudson had helped work on the sound of Gorman Bechard's documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? The doc, which filmed the making of Real, premiered in Loveless’ hometown of Columbus, and will continue to be screened in additional cities before its 2017 release on DVD. (Beginning September 9, the Gateway Film Center in Columbus will show the film on six consecutive nights.) Hudson had held a mic while Bechard filmed the band making Real. Now it was Hudson’s turn to ask about the music he heard when the band played it for the first time.
Loveless was in a celebratory mood and in her self-deprecating way, poking fun at the “brutal honesty” that’s often attributed to her songwriting. When Hudson asked her if people take her songs too literally, Loveless concurred. “I would say yes. But at the same time, a lot of my songs are very personal. But not all of them. It’s hard to describe. Whenever I write a song, it’s not like the whole song is about me or exactly from my perspective. I guess I remember what people say and write everything down, so a lot of it really happened, but it doesn’t...necessarily have to be attributed to me. My perspectives change a lot in my songs, for sure.”
Loveless confirmed she wanted to work a lot harder on production. A decade ago she wouldn’t have taken anyone’s advice. More recently she might have wanted to get it done and not overthink things. During the making of Real, she realized there was so much talent in the room that her band collectively could do a lot more. “I wanted to try anything.”
One such song “Heaven” with its disco dance floor groove, grew out of a dream Loveless claims she wrote in her sleep. She asked her band to imagine it was like a Smiths song except that they were playing it. She also was intrigued by doing “a Prince mixing kind of thing.” 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 from each other.
One night while Bechard filmed the band on the road, Loveless and her band ended up at Hudson’s house. In the film, she is seen strumming her guitar by his jukebox as she launches into the traditional hymn “Leaning On Everlasting Arms.” There’s a line in “Out on Love” that reminds me of the sequence when she sings “How someone like you would be cruel/Well, I don’t know what the truth is/But you gave me every reason/To fall out of everlasting arms.” In “Out On Love,” Gasper and Todd May's guitar 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 it gives the song its moody, trippy psychological edge.
Loveless juxtaposes the stellar pop craft of songs like the dreamy “Bilbao” and outer worldliness of “Heaven” with true grit and emotional drama 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 bedrock drumming of George Hondroulis and the propulsive but subtle bass playing of Ben Lamb are both agile--and turn up the urgency when Loveless’ emotions demand it.
The self-doubts and self-examinations are not new themes, but the head-on Real is filled with love’s landmines. 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 separation. Bechard shot a video of Loveless srumming her guitar to the song at Lost Weekend record store in Columbus. The song is dramatized in a short black and white film. As people flip through record bins oblivious to her presence, the camera pans back and fades out to underscore the song's distance.
The geographic references sprinkled throughout Real add another dimension to the album. There’s the dreamy lament set in the separatist Spanish town of Bilbao. There’s intrigue in “Same To You” about what happened in Texas (“That’s where I almost killed you, I’m just about to crack”). 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.
In “Longer,” she muses about the “shitty Indianapolis band” like it’s one of the characters in the song. By the time she sang “Longer” on CBS This Morning the line got sung as this “city of Indianapolis band,” perhaps due to some ghostly reappearance of a CBS censor that once had Mick Jagger sing “Let’s spend some time together” on the Ed Sullivan Show.
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 all of the songs. In some ways the record feels like a cliffhanger. You expect her to come up with one more verse or chorus in “Clumps.” 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 six-minute track “Desire.”
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 does just that for Loveless.
Now with summer coming to an end and autumn closing in, it’s once again time to hit the road. Loveless and band begin a stretch of dates in early September opening for the Drive-By Truckers. Such is the reverence for the band that Loveless named her cat Patterson Hood. When I saw her in Chapel Hill for a screening of Who Is Lydia Loveless?, she told me she was itching to get back on the road. On Live Ledge, she admitted she loses her mind when she’s home too long. ”I’ve found that being in the van is actually pretty meditative. It’s actually a good place for me to create in.”
Loveless will celebrate her 26th birthday a few days before her tour begins. Since she picked up the bass, she’s been making music now for half her life. On CBS This Morning, Loveless was introduced as someone who has led a “colorful life” with the statement left hanging. Who Is Lydia Loveless? is an affectionate film that provides a window in the songwriter's life story that is still being written. On Live Ledge, Hudson wanted to know if the film provides an answer to the question it poses: Who Is Lydia Loveless?
“No, but that’s OK,” she responded. “I think people change throughout their entire lives, so I’m cool with it. That’s who was Lydia Loveless at that time."
(Parts ot this article originally appeared in For The Country Record.)