Lydia Loveless: “Indestructible Machine”
I reckon I ought feel some sense of unease at listening to hard-drinking, shit-talking songs of bawdy soul-searching and alcoholic abandon from a woman who has not yet reached the legal drinking age, much less the point at which this kind of profane stock-taking tends to be more acceptable. But the songs are just too good. Indestructible Machine is a late-night, barroom confessional, an awakening for a singer who’s been living like her body and heart are, in fact, indestructible machines, and is only beginning to realize that they’re not. There are nine songs here that are gussied up in a cussin’, fightin’, drinkin’ veneer, with just enough cracks to let the light of vulnerability shine through. They walk a fraying wire, strung between a honky-tonk and a punk rock dive.
And as for Loveless herself? Well, she’s something else altogether—a real live wire of a singer, someone whose voice could be a ringer for stalwart country women like Loretta Lynn did she not deploy it with such unself-conscious, punkish abandon. Instead, she comes across sounding an awful lot like Neko Case, only a Neko Case who’s fully willing to relinquish control and put all her frayed nerves on display. It takes very little imagination to believe she could flat-out belt these numbers like a juke joint diva, yet she’s no showboater. The first song, “Bad Way to Go,” opens with a fumble of banjo and electric guitar, the band sounding like they’ve careened off track before they even begin; the song hits a gallop, and Loveless comes in with a commanding presence, but never one that threatens to send the whole thing toppling.
That song represents one end of the spectrum. It’s a pure country number, albeit a vulgar, drunken one, done up with rock and roll mayhem. At the other end there’s “Crazy,” a knockout, show-stopping closer, country soul and naked lust led off with fiddle and acoustic guitar. It’s a song of naked desire, the driving force behind everything here—the barnburners and the boozy laments alike. Its lyric is a perfect country lamentation: “Well I hope that this moment will never be over/ ‘Cause I just don’t know how I’ll face being sober.”
But anyone thinking this a cloying play of country drinkin’ and sex songs is in for a kick in the ass; Loveless is too confessional a songwriter, too inward-looking despite her tough-talking demeanor. These are songs caught between freedom and desire, independence and love. “Can’t Change Me” is a hard-charging rock and roll number, the snottiest and most pissed-off thing here, but its lyric—in which Loveless tells all of mankind (including Jesus himself) that she won’t change for them—is at once an anthem of empowerment and, it should be said, a profoundly lonely-sounding song. Note the last verse, in which Loveless admits that it’s not a matter of not wanting to change, but of not being able to. And then there’s the blazing honky-tonk rocker “Do Right,” which boasts what might as well be the album’s mantra: “I grew up on whiskey and God so I’m a little confused.”
Loveless is a songwriter fully adept at capturing conflicted, complex humanity in her songs; she sounds, I think, like someone who knows she could probably use redemption, but doesn’t particularly want it or see it as all that urgent. She talks a big game throughout these nine songs, but what’s remarkable is how, even if she’s writing according to genre or playing up what could almost be a novelty angle, the songs are steeped in authenticity and grit. As to the former, “How Many Women” is a country weeper that betrays a lonely heart; for the latter, “Steve Earle” and “Jesus Was a Wino” both suggest bruised and battered hearts in need of repair, and both find empathy in strange places; it’s the empathy that keeps them from being trifles.
There are no trifles here; just nine knockout songs, heartbreakers and dust-kickers and rabble-rousers. There’s real country soul, and blazing punk rock glory. And the voice—oh, what a voice. It’s a tremendous album, debut or otherwise, and its only downfall is the sense of worry it leaves you with: If Loveless keeps guzzling all that gasoline, one fears she could burn out before her star truly reaches its full brightness.