The ongoing evolution of singer and songwriter Lydia Loveless

Music critic Greg Kot traces the continued artistic rise of the Columbus musician, who will celebrate the release of their career-best new album at Natalie’s Grandview on Saturday, Nov. 25.
Lydia Loveless
Lydia LovelessCourtesy the artist

Lydia Loveless’ latest album, Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again, traces the arc of a relationship that didn’t work out. It’s a helluva story, both writerly and visceral, brimming with the kind of brutal honesty we’ve come to expect from Loveless. It keeps building until an emotional crescendo arrives on the penultimate song, “French Restaurant,” in which Loveless demands “a little bit of GODDAMN HONESTY.” She’s not tearing into her soon-to-be-discarded lover, but the person staring at her in the bathroom mirror. When she turns “want” into a multi-syllable cry in the next line, her regret about this break-up – and her complicity in its unraveling – sounds positively feral.

On the final song, “Summerlong,” strings and piano provide consolation as emotional exhaustion settles over the wreckage. “It's been so long since I've felt alive that it feels wrong,” she sings, unable to completely shake off the past but glimpsing a bit of light peeking over the horizon.

Loveless is only 33 years old, and she’s already established herself as among her generation’s very best songwriters. But something tells me she’s not done outdoing herself. 

As a kid, she sang along to Ace of Base and Fiona Apple on the radio, then went along for the ride as the 13-year-old bass player in her older sisters’ band. The siblings grew up on a farm outside of Coshocton with 200 cattle, horses and goats. Loveless loved the country but hated the town for its small-mindedness, and the band offered a way out. When her siblings went their separate ways, she tried writing songs. Open-mic nights led to a one-off recording contract with a producer and session musicians. It sounded just like you’d suspect: a slick country-pop confection that made Loveless feel like a bystander on her own record.

If you’re wondering where an album title like Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again comes from, look no further than that best-forgotten 2010 debut. It was the first in a long series of stops, starts and detours, documented on a series of albums, EPs and singles over the next decade-plus. With Indestructible Machine, from 2011, Loveless took control of her music and handed co-producer Joe Viers some no-nonsense directions:  “I pretty much gave him the first album and said, ‘I want to do the exact opposite,’” she once told me. “I didn’t want everything so cleaned up that it sounded like an alien did it.”

Mission accomplished. Indestructible Machine established Loveless as a force in the insurgent country scene mapped out by her label at the time, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. The record had a nasty edge that Loveless and her band amplified even more on stage, as if each gig represented one more opportunity for the singer to purge the anger she’d been stockpiling.

When I spoke to her around that time, Loveless was thrilled with the reception the album was receiving while at the same time feeling hemmed in by the stylistic box into which she’d been crammed.

“It’s harder to be a woman songwriter in some ways, maybe because there are fewer of us,” she told me. “We get compared to the same people all the time. I get the ‘next Neko Case’ or ‘not as good as Neko Case’ thing all the time. Hopefully I can write songs in the future that don’t make it so easy to be compared to anyone else.” 

Loveless’ determination in those early conversations was matched only by her modesty. She knew she needed to improve at her craft. “I’m still learning,” she said.

Voracious reading of authors ranging from Mary Karr and Charles Bukowski to the 19th Century French symbolist poets fueled her ambition. A turning point arrived with “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” a song directly inspired by her literary adventures on her 2014 album, Somewhere Else.

She had her own Rimbaud-like “derangement of the senses” moment while fighting through writer’s block in a way that “opened the floodgates,” she told me. “I was writing songs that I thought of as spring cleaning – not terrible songs, but nothing I wanted to go on the road with, nothing that was motivating me. I needed to be better. ‘Verlaine’ lyrically was a different thing for me as far as storytelling. It’s not that I wanted to shoot someone, but it took me to a different level lyrically.”

The music began to evolve as well, ranging effortlessly in 2016 between the layered richness of “Same to You” and the tangled Joni Mitchell-like starkness of “Clumps.” With the Daughter album, from 2020, Loveless essentially loosened all the stylistic restraints that tethered her to any particular genre. She was now plunging fully into sophisticated art-pop. The album brought Loveless a step closer to becoming like one of her heroes, the British singer-guitarist Richard Thompson – “somebody who writes good songs without being tied to genre.”

Yet Loveless retains the visceral punch that first endeared her to fans more than a decade ago. Her voice remains as open-hearted as ever, while becoming more nuanced, reveling as much in subtlety and understatement as she once did in shouting through her pain from the rooftops.

On Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again, it’s a voice that dares to confront the kind of uncomfortable truths that can turn relationships into traps. It’s a voice that says, “I love you, but I can’t stay with you because this relationship is killing me, killing you, killing us.”

That’s an attitude that projects toughness, but also empathy. It’s a virtue in Loveless’ songwriting and ever-expanding music. And it makes the accomplishment of her latest work feel not only hard-won, but inevitable.

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