Ever since her country-punk freshness redefined the genre with the song “Steve Earle” in 2011, Lydia Loveless has demonstrated how to create the optimal mix of heartache, surliness and resilience. For her fifth album Daughter (Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late Records), her first in four years, she dispenses with shit-kicker anthems and admits that sorrow is a heavy burden. She’s still processing her 2016 divorce from her band’s upright-bass player Ben Lamb, but this is not an album steeped in tragedy. This is Lydia Loveless, so it’s all about survival.
In a decade of writing and arranging songs, Loveless has learned to use guitar and keyboards to maximum effect, even when riffs are meant more for philosophizing than dancing. Many of the 10 songs could be imagined as barstool sing-along anthems, but the lyrics of standouts like “Wringer” and “Love Is Never Enough” stand with the finest in country or indie rock. The title track is the kind of tearjerker that begs for a hug, but in Loveless’ case, you realize she’s tougher than you could ever be.
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Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension (Asthmatic Kitty) – For every perfectly crafted mini rock opera Stevens has penned on Michigan or Illinois history, the Detroit native has meandered into strange projects like a symphony to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Here, he promises to address our troubled times, and songs like “Video Game” or “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse” are based on frank lyrics on death and redemption. But his foray into EDM in recent years has made his works feel more drifting and formless than his simple banjo and backing string ensemble in days of yore. The Ascension might otherwise be his masterpiece, if he had allowed it more form.
Dawes, Good Luck with Whatever (Rounder Records) – Given Dawes’ mellowing output in recent years, and lead singer Taylor Goldsmith’s imminent fatherhood with pop singer Mandy Moore, there was no reason to expect this album to be anything but sugary and forgettable. But the L.A. band surprises in its seventh studio album with music as vibrant as their live show, world-weary lyrics about growing up, and optimism about rock as redemption. If only everyone could enter middle age as gracefully as Goldsmith.