Lisa Loeb – The Way It Really Is

By their nature, breakup albums are a very tenuous proposition. One would think on the initial concept that your audience is virtually unlimited, being that pretty much everyone with a Walkman and an affinity for your kind of music have probably been similarly jilted in the past. Also take into account the fact that songs of lost love, puppy love or unrequited love are scattered over the vast majority of popular records from the last half century, and one could reasonably posit the assertion that a positive response would be all but guaranteed. As usually happens in human existence, though, common sense occasionally falls by the wayside. There is indeed a fine line to be walked. 

Hit your target sentiment right on the head, with an even keel and a dash of sardonic hindsight here and there, and the audience will empathize with your every word. Come to the party too angry or bitter, though, and your album will come off like a short-fused, visceral effigy fest that puts a little too much emphasis on your eager willingness to demolish whatever is left of the bridge that was built, like Tom Hanks and John Candy did literally in Volunteers. The latter strategy may work for the little teenyboppers who have merely waded in the kiddie pool of romance (prominently evidenced on the current American pop charts), but for veterans of the song trade like Lisa Loeb, true emotional catharsis involves more than just a flippant display of finger-pointing.

Loeb’s latest, The Way It Really Is, came to fruition following her breakup with longtime beau Dweezil Zappa; their coupling lasted six years, or approximately one eon as celebrity relationships go. One might think that courting a Zappa would be asking for trouble. But Dweezil, as primarily evidenced on their culinary-based Food Network romp, Dweezil and Lisa, seemed to be quite the grounded, level-headed boyfriend, silently railing against his clan’s checkered history. The album’s title is lifted from a song on Loeb’s previous album, Cake & Pie (repackaged as Hello Lisa, on Artemis Records following her split from A&M), and it is fitfully descriptive of the material that follows.

The Way It Really Is is an album stuffed to the gills with stylistic parallels, perhaps representing the frequently fluctuating emotions and inherent micro-analyzing that goes on within relationships, unintentionally if not purposefully. The record vacillates from Loeb’s sparse, acoustic coffeehouse tunes to jaunty, noisier electric numbers that belie the insecurities bubbling just below the surface. Loeb purrs her way through the wry, symbolic opener “Window Shopping,” second-guessing herself perchance within the line “the warranty is in the sack / you can always take me back…” She holds steadfast in her preference for the softer material, displaying it prominently on the defiantly blunt “Hand Me Downs” and the piano-tinged “Try.” 

Ever since her ubiquitous hit “Stay” about ten years ago, Loeb had consistently dabbled in radio-ready pop tunes, even if she did stay closer to her low-key, acoustic persona more often than not. “You Don’t Know Me” and “Someone You Should Know” from Hello Lisa had a pop sheen and catchy hook just as worthy as what “Stay” possessed, falling victim only to a musical landscape that had skewed towards a younger audience since “Stay” had risen to the top of the charts. Loeb succeeds here in keeping one foot in the radio-ready material, as proven by the defined resignation of “I Control the Sun” (“I can’t make you see things the way I see them…”), “Probably” and the John Shanks-helmed “Fools Like Me,” the most bona fide of the bunch. Zappa, even as the implied target of the discontent, makes significant contributions, the most prominent of which is the symbolically jagged guitar solo within the bridge on “Diamonds.” Jellyfish expatriate Jason Falkner also makes an appearance, stamping his trademark harmonies and Wurlitzer all over the closing “Now I Understand.” 

Especially on her earlier material, Loeb had a tendency to get caught up in her wordplay, causing some of it to more resemble ramshackle beat poetry than pop music. She knew that she had stuff to say, she just wasn’t quite sure how to present it. Her songwriting here, though, is much more balanced and straightforward, giving the impression that she is maturing as a songwriter as well as a person. The awkward lyrical runs have all but disappeared, replaced by a self-evident confidence and a stronger ear for a good melody. Toss in a few cotton candy hooks for the masses, and you’ve got a genuine, grownup, wholly unpretentious breakup album that any flustered romantic who has grown weary of anything with the surname “Simpson” slapped on it can get lost in.

( Zoe / Rounder Records)

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