Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
It’s easy – no, rather, tempting to resort to hyperbole in reviews, but clichéd as it is, it’s still a surefire way to get listeners excited to hear an artist. A country-punk fusion coming out of Bloodshot Records likely wouldn’t stir the pot on its own merit, if only because, well … you expect some sort of off-kilter weirdness from their artists (in a good way, of course). But when an artist is hailed as a “cowpunk princess” and is drawing comparisons from everyone from Patsy Cline to Neko Case? Well, alright – you got my attention, at least.
That’s the praise Lydia Loveless drew when the then 21-year-old released Indestructible Machine, an album where the very first song begins with a clash of banjo and rough-edged guitars dueling against each other that basically sets the tone for the album. When examining it in hindsight, it’s the kind of album that couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be made again, and Loveless would distance herself from this fusion of cowpunk and alternative country on later projects (which isn’t a bad thing, as I’d argue 2016’s Real is basically on par with this project). And while not her debut album, it may as well have been, especially when the album is endlessly quotable and introduced Loveless in a not-so-comfortable way to the rest of the world.
But before digging into the deeper meaning of that, it’s worth noting that Loveless came out swinging with this album. No, the stylistic fusion wasn’t necessarily novel, especially for its time, but Loveless herself is a fantastic presence behind the microphone – rough and raw, yet clear and strong to add a fantastic bite to her material. And make no mistake, this album is a rough listen, albeit in a good way. There’s the aforementioned opener, a clash of instrumentals that manages to work there as well as “Do Right,” if only because everything eventually rounds out anyway; there’s a raw, unbridled energy to this project: the jangled groove of “Can’t Change Me”; the way the riff builds off the hook on “More Like Them” to fantastic degree; or the dark, simmering drive of tracks like “Jesus Was A Wino” and “Steve Earle.” And that’s before mentioning how Loveless’ fantastic presence means that quieter moments have real heft behind them. The jagged edges of fiddle and acoustics on “Crazy” and “How Many Women” prove she can still get her point across no matter the manner in which it’s delivered.
And as for what that message is … look, the fact that Loveless is also a fantastic melodic composer means several of these tracks and hooks will stick; and while it’s easy to label this project as “fun,” given Loveless’ often-self-deprecating attitude here, I’d argue that label would mean entirely missing the point. Her writing is sharp and loaded with barbed comments and crushingly real subtext beneath, like how the fictitious tale of the titular country outlaw stalking her on “Steve Earle” likely says more about women working in the music industry in 2020 than it did in 2011. And yes, there’s too many one-liners to count on this album that may intend to opt for a lighthearted jab (“Jesus Was A Wino” … well, the title really says it all), but the deeper thematic arc is more than a bit uncomfortable than that.
That’s because Loveless isn’t pulling back from her self-destruction or the pain she’s inflicted onto herself and others. And yes, there’s a righteous fury to setting a cheater in his place on “Bad Way To Go,” but the natural progression finds Loveless hating that darker side of her and not seeking any glorification from it. She’s an indestructible machine because doesn’t know who to reach out to for help in overcoming the obvious substance abuse issues and alcoholism, which, of course, is furthered by the fact that anyone she does reach out to just passes judgment on her and doesn’t understand anyway. After all, if they did, or if they even cared to begin with, maybe she wouldn’t have wandered down that path on her own.
And that lends itself to Loveless viewing those chances of happiness and redemption as futile, especially when she’s unresponsive to even trying to make something work on “Can’t Change Me” or “Learn To Say No.” Granted, there is a happy ending with “Crazy,” if only because she finds solace knowing someone else has screwed up just as much as she has, but it’s also a journey to that happiness that Loveless makes on her own here. As hard as it is, listeners never doubt she’ll achieve what she wants to, and it’s usually just best to stay out of the way.
And like with all albums I’ve examined for this particular series, it’s a near-perfect listen. The only track I’ve ever thought to be a tad underwritten than the rest is “How Many Women,” but even it’s still fairly good. With that said, however, I am glad Loveless distanced herself away from this specific lyrical style while still keeping the raw bite and confidence for later projects, if only because this journey of self-destruction is a trip best made just once. I do miss some of the rougher edges in the production and instrumentation, hence why, uncomfortable as it is to say it, this is still my favorite Loveless project. But if you wanted a fantastic starting point for one of the fiercest performers in the alternative country scene today, it’s here, but tread lightly.