The Candid Country Of Lydia Loveless’s Real

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on Loveless’s Midwestern heart

If you have lived a life in or adjacent to the music scene in Columbus, Ohio, for a long enough time, you likely have a story that begins with “I saw Lydia Loveless, and it was amazing.” I first saw Lydia Loveless playing in a small packed bar in Columbus in 2005, mostly out of curiosity. Her band at the time, Carson Drew, was equal parts intriguing, puzzling, and incredibly talented. The band consisted of Loveless and her two sisters backed by their father on drums, and they played a sharp and brilliantly aggressive brand of new-wave pop that was just messy enough to veer into short bursts of punk. They were a fun topic in the city for a bit: a band of teenage girls and their dad, approaching the music in a way that didn’t feel like it was chasing a novelty. Around 2007, they began to dissolve, leaving Loveless free to run into performing her own songs.

The best thing about the music scene in Columbus is that it affords people the type of freedom that comes with not having the pressure to “make it.” Despite being an incredibly rich music city, no one comes to Columbus to strike gold. Which makes it more precious when someone who rises through the music scene in the city is actually able to strike gold with their roots firmly in place. What this also does is create an atmosphere where artists are pushing each other without the fear of losing an opportunity to the person they’re pushing. Lydia Loveless, on her early solo run, made music in Columbus better because she seemed almost too good to be true: impossible to keep up with, but still worth being motivated to. She was a teenager writing into a lived existence that seemed a decade older than she was, singing the kind of honest-to-god country music that draws breath — the kind that sticks to walls, bodies, and dreams for weeks after it is pushed out over the edge of a stage.

The ethos of Lydia Loveless is firmly in place on Real, her fourth album, which sounds more adventurous and daring than her previous releases. The vibe of the album is limitless, as if the walls began to come down around her as she was recording it. It doesn’t turn a corner as much as it digs deeper into the well of Loveless’s considerable talent and dips its toes into the waters of genre-blending in a way that her previous albums didn’t dare to. “Heaven” pushes its back against the door of late-’70s pop, letting some Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac sounds sneak in. The album’s title track is a cleaner, more easily digestible version of mid-2000s pop rock. There is still, of course, Loveless’s calling card: honest, heartfelt country that calls to the genre’s roots, both in emotional tone and musical execution, songs that pair well with a dive bar’s last call on a night when going home doesn’t feel like the best option. “European” and “Longer” both shake down the romance and shine a light on what’s left.

I often ask myself if we, as people who listen to and love music, are approaching the idea of honesty all wrong. I wonder if the tug-of-war pulling all genres closer to pop has also lowered the bar on what our vision of lyrical and emotional honesty can or “should” look like, not wrapped up in theatrics or overwrought romantics. When the talk turns to the bluntness and honesty in Lydia Loveless’s lyrics, as it has often in her career, I’m more interested in how much time is spent on how surprising or jarring the bluntness is, as opposed to talking about it for what it is: a singular gift, a superpower. Surprising, perhaps, only to those who have never spent time in the same geography as Loveless. I recognize home in her pursuit of honest lyricism, more now than I did when we lived in the same city. The bluntness isn’t what I may encounter now on the East Coast, where bluntness is the edge of the cliff with nothing below. Loveless operates in a brand of bluntness that serves the Midwestern art of storytelling: Some edges are sharp and some lines are clipped, but there is the promise of an entire experience on the other side.

I am an Ohioan and I am a storyteller, and sometimes showing you the thing I want you to see requires me moving all of the things I don’t want you to see out of the way as quickly and fiercely as possible. To be blunt and still inviting is a gift. Loveless’s music has always had enough bite to wound, but enough nuance to heal. It is music that makes eye contact. I want, more than anything, to have music that makes me feel seen. I want this out of some genres more than others, of course, and there is a degree of difficulty that Loveless takes on in this pursuit. Not just due to genre, but also due to how rooted in lived experience her work has always been. And yet she bridges the gap, time and time again. All I ask of the musician, the writer, the artist, is to ignore what experiences may keep us apart and take me to the mess I know. I say, “Surely we have both lived through the same type of failure,” and on Real, as she has for years, Lydia Loveless responds, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Ohio is a three-city state, which, for its size, is somewhat impressive. Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati run down the middle of the state, from north to south. Unlike other states with only one major city (say, Illinois), Ohio’s three are often wrestling for notoriety and fighting to stand apart from each other. It makes for a fascinating and sometimes puzzling split, each city its own republic. But even with so much space taken up by cities in any direction, it is a state with the same Midwest bleakness as all of the states that surround it: abandoned factories in Akron; leaning, weather-worn barns along the highway with Ohio’s bicentennial dates still painted on their sides from over a decade ago; a black sign rising out of a dying field, reminding us that Hell is real. This balance makes the state feel equal parts full and emptying, the perfect landscape for a person to become anything. It is a state that relies on people selling it to the dismissive masses who only turn an eye toward it during election season. What I appreciate about the music of Lydia Loveless, even after all these years, is that I am being sold nothing. Saying “the work speaks for itself” is a cliché that is rarely true, something we may say when we don’t want to answer hard questions. But Loveless has made a musical career out of both asking and answering the hard questions. More than anything, she has a sound that is intimately tethered to the state’s existence, both deeply fulfilling and hollowing in its pursuit of emotion. Real is a great album, one that I listen to through the lens of a Columbus loyalist, but one that I think will comfortably grow and spread to many lenses, in many eager hearts.