I’ve heard a lot of really unique descriptions of Lydia Loveless's new album, "Somewhere Else". It’s always X + Y that supposedly equals a new sound. None of them seem to capture the essence of the record for me. On Loveless’s Facebook page, her sound is described as “Loretta Lynn and Patti Smith slamming shots at a Midwestern dive bar while cowboys and punks brawl out back”. That’s a good one, but for my ears, even that falls flat. If you want a good comparison, you have to look to The Joker.
Yes, from Batman.
Specifically, the Heath Ledger Dark Knight Joker.
Yeah, I know…even for me, a guy who relishes in way-out-there analogies (one of my crowning achievements was impressing the conservative parents of a college student I had in a Sunday School class with my lesson built entirely about a throw-away line from "White Men Can’t Jump"), that’s a stretch.
But I remember when the Dark Knight came out I told a friend that I thought Heath Ledger transcended the movie. It was a hard concept to explain, but basically I felt that everyone else in the movie existed within the framework of the film. There were boundaries and lines. Every role existed within those. Most performances do. But Ledger didn’t pay attention to those lines. It’s a rare phenomenon when an actor pulls that off. It’s not sloppy. They’re not a bull in a china shop, busting through the lines and boundaries. Just the opposite. They gracefully slip past them, go over them, weave through them. At the same time, it’s powerful. The borders can’t contain them.
That’s how Lydia Loveless’s voice strikes me on this record. There is a framework for it; the music, song structure, etc. But her voice is so big and powerful and emotive that the framework can’t contain it. At the same time, she knows how to use it. It doesn’t get away from her. It’s never a bull in a china shop. It’s just a big, beautiful instrument that she can wield at will, regardless of the lines and boundaries around her.
She’s explained numerous times that when it was time for her follow up album, she made every good effort at copying the sound of her previous album, assuming that’s what everyone wanted/expected. When she realized that just wasn’t where she was, she scrapped it and wrote from her heart, coming up with a new sound.
You will (or have…I’m pretty late in sharing this one) hear a lot of reviewers talk about that sound. Yes, there are elements of country and punk in there (see every song). I haven’t heard as many people mention the power pop (again, all of ‘em) and southern soul influences (“Hurts So Bad”), though. But given the wild-ass blend of hybridized and bastardized sounds I’m used to sharing on Dirty Roots, that’s not what’s groundbreaking here. That’s not a slight, either. The band sounds great…but ultimately, the music is just Loveless’s canvas.
You’ll hear much made of her lyrical content. Yes, it’s explicit. And she pulls it off well. Unless you’re Prince or Leonard Cohen, blatant references to oral sex (“Head”) can be difficult to pull off. And “my head jammed…way up your ass” (from “Chris Isaak”) isn’t a graceful lyric for anyone to execute. However, it doesn’t even jar to hear Loveless sing it. Heartfelt honesty can work wonders. There’s no question she meant that one.
Yes, her apparent experiences belie her age at only 23. But she’s not the first precocious singer songwriter. It’s a special quality…but for this listener, it’s not what makes this album special.
What’s special here is everything to do with her performance. That swollen, sultry, achy voice. It sounds like it may actually burst from longing or pain. Her tremolo is used to perfect effect. She swoops and stretches, crossing lines, ignoring standard rules.
Writing honest words is important. Delivering those words from the depths of your soul in the way that you know is right, and true to yourself, is high art. That yields transcendence. And that’s what Loveless has done with “Somewhere Else”.
And, yeah…she’s only 23. So let’s hope she stays honest and keeps listening to her soul. Who knows where she can go from here?
For now, she’s delivered one hell of an incredible album. It’s my favorite of the short year so far and I feel very confident in saying it’ll take my top honor for the entire year.