The notion of authenticity is a strange thing, especially in art. Evaluating authenticity means making large assumptions about an artist's emotional experience, which is problematic because the act of transmitting a feeling through a voice or instrument involves some amount of mediation and artifice. By using authenticity as an evaluative tool, you presume to have comprehensive knowledge of an experience that was not yours. This, you could argue, is the definition of arrogance.

But I think there's something to that impulse; the problem is that it's mislabeled. The mislabeling happens in focusing on whether a given song is an accurate reflection of an artist's experience. That's not really the issue, nor is it all that relevant to anyone's enjoyment of a song. The real issue is whether the song has urgency and purpose, whether it creates a resonance within you.

These questions are particularly important now because of the ways we listen to music and its shifting role in our lives. There are too many images and sounds competing for our attention to let one linger without a good reason. It needs that texture, that performative flourish, the thing that keeps you listening when you don't "get it" the first time around. It needs to matter.

Prior to Real, her fourth studio album, Lydia Loveless made songs that matter. Most were about broken love or addiction, but each one was a fresh wound, each was important in relation to the others. She made you feel the sinking weight of recognition that, despite whatever revelations she had in the moment, she would feel this again.

Like many great country singers and songwriters, Loveless' great talent was taking complicated situations and making them simple through her lyrics and voice. The former made pointed use of metaphors, aphorisms, and allusions to find the essence of multilayered conflicts. She does this on her 2014 song 'Somewhere Else,' from her album of the same name. It is about indecision, and Loveless skips details to sit at the core of her dilemma: Sometimes, she wants to leave her lover. Sometimes, she does not.

"I waved the flag for the home team too long," she sings near the song's beginning, but follows shortly thereafter with the realization that "things ain't looking too good on the other side / The grass is greener, but it's tended by wolves." There are ways to approach this song that would make it a clinical study of perspective and guilt. For Loveless, the feeling is what matters, the tug she feels from opposite directions.

But Loveless is more than her words. Music critics tend to focus on lyrics with country singers, as if they are writers and not performers, as if a clever turn of phrase can produce its own melody and instrumental accompaniment. The performances make them come alive, and Loveless has at her disposal a remarkable voice with so much in it. There is a little husk, a little grit, a sturdiness, a hint of vibrato. It has depth and force, and it's the only thing that matters when she's using it to its full potential.

She does so on 'Steve Earle,' the best song from her 2011 album, Indestructible Machine, and arguably her best to date. The song is about a stalker who preys on Loveless' addictions and courts her with all the tact of a hurricane. The situation is a little sad, scary, and funny--the sort of thing that's incredibly difficult to convey in writing and performance. But Loveless does not turn it into an intellectual exercise. She makes it volatile, unstable.

There is a line in the song that says everything you need to know about this predatory relationship. Anticipating his presence at her next show, Loveless crafts an excuse to keep her stalker at bay, planning to "tell him I've got another show to play tonight in some place that's real far away." In this line there is fear, resilience, exhaustion, relief. Her voice pushes outward, but there are hints of strain at the edges, as if she has long ago passed her breaking point. This is the moment you know, if you haven't been convinced already, she makes songs that matter.

The problem with her new album, Real, is that her songs are, with a few exceptions, vague and flat and don't fight for anything. Sometimes, she dresses them up with extraneous instruments and digital effects, as on 'Heaven,' where her voice is subject to reverb and double-tracked harmonies and, in the process, loses its clarity and authority. The guitars stack up three, four at a time and a synthesizer enters in the final choruses. In the absence of urgency, the song opts for addition.

The impulse toward excess as a symbol of progress is not new, and the logic behind it makes sense. When you've worked and reworked a song in the studio, you only hear the additions, which sound like improvement. But in practice, this impulse carries a special sting for Loveless, who is so effective when she turns a feeling inside out.

There is one moment on the album where she does just that, and it is, not coincidentally, more spare and concise than the nine songs that surround it. The song is called 'Clumps,' and over two minutes, it features just Loveless' voice and an acoustic guitar. The title is a metaphor for a relationship gone rotten--like spoiled milk--but the song volleys between closure and desire, with Loveless struggling to move on from a relationship. "I hope that I affected you and tore you up inside," she sings, "Must be why you turn away and never ask me why / I cry, and never sleep at night / I need you on my side, but honey, not tonight."

Her use of emphasis, through her voice and strummed guitar chords, alternates in a similar, see-saw pattern, rising and falling in small sighs. The song is simple, raw, and never resolves itself. It is also the one song on the album that really sticks, the one that doesn't pull its punches.

I'm not sure if the rest have any punches to pull. Another curious tendency on Real is an avoidance of dramatic tension. Loveless' previous albums thrived on it, lived in the very center of heartbreak and excess. Here, the songs are more inclined to drift than build, picking a gear and staying in it. This would be alright for an artist inclined toward subtle modulations of texture, timbre, and rhythm, but Loveless works best when she moves around a fixed object. Focus is the thing for her, and, between and within the songs, this album doesn't have enough of it.

Maybe she's just tired. You can only take so much heartbreak before you become numb to it, and Loveless, here, doesn't seem to have much fight left. Her weary disposition begs for songs that are stripped down and reduced to their component parts--songs that don't fuss around. That's the problem--the fussing, the instinct to add more. It sounds like she's reaching for something, but she doesn't know what it is or where to find it. As she sings on 'Midwestern Guys,' "inspiration really doesn't always come all that easy."