Is Lydia Loveless, who made their name writing infectious country-rock songs with a death wish—songs about setting an ex’s lawn on fire and getting shot down in a lovers’ spat—mellowing out? “I’m getting older and my jets are starting to cool,” they sing amid squalls of reverb on Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again, their sixth full-length album. But then, with something between a wink and a sigh, they add, “If I ever get sober it’s really over for you fools.” It is part confession, part boast, part wish, delivered in a croon that holds their vocal power in reserve. Loveless’ earlier albums made deft use of sudden reversals: a flash of vulnerability followed by a sucker punch. Here and throughout their latest and best album, they spend more time in the ambiguous middle.
Some of Loveless’ most aggressive music over the past several years has arrived in deceptively shiny packages. On songs like “Heaven” and “Wringer” from their previous two albums, they threw their voice like a hand grenade, thundering lines like “Paradise is only for the weak, man” over twinkling synths and hi-hat pulses. The pessimism roiling beneath these songs transformed their brightness into a deadly coldness: less disco lights than the glint of a scalpel. Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again paints with a softer palette. Loveless largely sings not from the aftermath but in medias res. In “Toothache,” they feel a low-grade disaster coming on and beg their lover to just “pry it loose,” as a chorus of sugary whoo-hoo-hoos hints at the relief that might follow. The middle of a slowly unfolding crisis can also be eerily calm. “I’ve been looking for a way out,” they confess on the standout “Ghost,” which starts off as one of the most resigned-sounding revenge songs in recent memory, before inverting resignation into relief: “Think that I’ll find it now that I’m stuck in time.”
It can be hard to tell the difference between such eye-of-the-hurricane calm and total psychic shutdown. On “Runaway,” over a woozy Mellotron pad, Loveless alternates between cataloging death-drive urges and sketching fragments of scene: “Dissociating down at Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar.” Only a cascading Wurlitzer line, accompanied by a shift into Loveless’ supernaturally resonant upper register, cuts through the murk. There is a stubborn will to transcendence in these songs: a desire to leave the dissociative slough of the eternal middle. But the will-they-won’t-they friction between self-destruction and self-preservation generates its own kind of pleasure. “I want the rush of knowing that I did the right thing for once,” Loveless declares on the power-pop confection “Do the Right Thing,” a song about resolving not to make a confession of love. In “Poor Boy,” a call and response between competing desires—“I wanna get in his head/Don’t wanna fuck with his head”—gathers a giddy energy that carries the song out over waves of pitch-bent synths.
“Sex and Money,” maybe Loveless’s best song yet, inhabits a different sort of middle. It is an anthem of desperate ambition, set to a rim-knocking groove, that captures the accumulating frustrations of a mid-list rock’n’roll act. But if it is an anthem, it is a self-defeating one, lingering on the simultaneous ridiculousness and necessity of the hustle it chronicles. “I know I’m not saving the world, but I gotta live in it,” Loveless drawls, “so I might as well splurge on 200 cotton T-shirts with my face on the front.” In the almost painfully catchy chorus that follows, Loveless pulls off a genuine magic trick: They make the bare act of survival, irradiated with the vital but embarrassing desire for something more, feel like enough, at least for now.
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