Record Routine: Lydia Loveless releases excellent and melancholy fourth album

There’s a negative, knee-jerk reaction to country in certain circles of musical fandom. You know the one; the glib response of “I listen to everything but country and rap” immediately comes to mind. I can’t help but think it’s a gracious mix of regionalism and sour elitism—the term conjures images of overalls-wearing, beer-guzzling, sister-kissing bumpkins from the Deep South, crooning sultry ballads to their tractors. We refined city folk, we have more serious interests, like “House of Cards” and, I don’t know, The Wall Street Journal.

What people tend to ignore is that for every carefree redneck jam, there are a million country songs that wax nihilistic. There’s a deep melancholy that sews its way through much of the music, its roots digging deep into outlaw songs and ballads from time immemorial. Lydia Loveless is the latest artist to spring forth from this tradition—if her name wasn’t indicator enough—and her fourth record Somewhere Else is maybe her most refined gaze into the abyss yet.

Somewhere Else sounds like a sad night: alone, drunk on cheap whiskey, trying your best to keep it all stitched together. The songs never quite achieve, say, "Bright Eyes" levels of overt melancholy, but underneath all the brazen guitar chugging and propulsion is a leaking darkness.

Big sloppy guitars open “I Really Wanna See You,” which is a coked up phone call to a recently married former lover. Loveless, strung out, with a full heart and hazy eyes, manages the perfect balance of swagger and frantic despair, insisting she called just to “see how you were doing” even though she clearly didn’t. Same of “Wine Lips”—the song is gigantic, the chorus crushes and Loveless signs it off with a smacking kiss, but in the end it’s all about two people getting drunk to stave off loneliness. After a while it becomes apparent that “Lydia Loveless” isn’t just a catchy alliteration, it’s a mission statement. This is what Loveless knows best, and she does it with bravado.

Loveless’s band certainly deserves some credit for the record’s success, all guitar muscle and winding riffs, but it’s Lydia herself who sells the whole affair. She’s expressed concern over being compared to Neko Case before (not out of lack of respect, but rather for fear of being compared to anyone at all), but it’s hard not to think of Loveless as an upstart offspring of her and Patti Smith. She’s got pipes comparable to Case for sure, but the vulnerability-cum-punk authority is strictly Smith, and the marriage of the two is something stunning. It gives particular weight to cuts like “Somewhere Else,” the album’s strongest track, where aggression gives way to texture and Loveless—voice adamant but cracking—admits that she “just wants to be somewhere else tonight.”

The record does start to sag under its own emotionality and repetition after a while—I don’t care who you are, I can only listen to so many open-diary songs about how sad you are before you start to lose me—but it’s still an engrossing trip regardless. Penultimate number “Everything’s Gone,” for me, is the de facto closer. It’s a cathartic song that shrugs off everything but Loveless and her acoustic guitar, and it’s a welcome reprieve. Just her, her words, and her voice seeped in sadness beyond her years. If it weren’t for the wearisome “They Don’t Know,” a needless retread of stronger songs, it would be the perfect end to the record. But from someone like Loveless, flaws are just part of the equation—you can’t get too mad at her for being human.

Rating: A-

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