[20 October 2009]
Attention, Lyle Lovers: Your man is back with a new album, Natural Forces, his tenth studio album, and third consecutive for the Lost Highway label. Although, as you’ve no doubt learned, if he were always the man that you wanted, he would not be the man that he is. Let’s review how we got here.
From 1986 to 1996, Lyle Lovett was hitting with Tony Gwynn-level consistency. Lovett made it look easy on album after album of elegantly crafted country swing and folk ballads, everything impeccably played and sung. The songwriting on those records—the self-titled debut through The Road to Ensenada—set Lovett apart from other neo-traditional country hitmakers at the time, thanks to Lovett’s penchant for droll, cerebral lyrics and a dexterous blend of classic country, Texas swing, blues, and jazz stylings. Lovett contributed enough good songs in that burst of creative harvest—“Farther Down the Line”, “God Will”, “She’s No Lady”, “If I Had a Boat”, “Nobody Knows Me” (personal fave), “L.A. County”, etc.—to assure his status as one of the greats of his era, if not of all time.
Since ‘96, however, Lovett has been sputtering, sometimes seriously stalled. Instead of releasing a new collection of original songs, Lovett hit the brakes with 1988’s Step Inside This House, a double-set of covers by Lovett’s favorite Texas songwriters, followed by Live in Texas (1999), the instrumental soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women (2000), a best-of anthology, which included two new originals (2001), and a compilation of songs from movies, Smile (2003). That’s seven years, five releases, and just two new songs, which raised speculations that Lovett was suffering from writer’s block, and it wasn’t encouraging that his first album of originals to end the drought included the two songs from the greatest hits package earlier.
To Lovett’s credit, 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate was a solid return to form, even if it doesn’t rank among his very best, and 2007’s It’s Not Big It’s Large was even better, despite a confusing title and cover art that suggested that it was a live album. It’s Not Big It’s Large found Lovett demonstrating a still-zoetic versatility of styles on his most eclectic release to date, including a couple of of his best-ever ballads. So hopes were high going into this year’s release that Lovett had rediscovered his muse, which is why Natural Forces is such a disappointing step backward.
For one thing, the album is, for the most part, another Step Inside This House-style covers album. Only five of these 11 songs are Lovett originals, and two of those are co-written with others. One of Lovett’s tunes is “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel”, a jokey throwaway, with its hot-stepping country-swing arrangement and “I’m gonna choke my chicken” chorus—it gets old a minute into the song, the kind of thing that can be fun live, but does nothing for a studio record, especially as the second song on the record. There are apparently high hopes for “Pantry”, given the inclusion of a tacked-on acoustic version at the album’s end, but despite a nice classic-country melody in the verse, the single metaphor conceit (our love is like food) is hokey, and the chorus is as flat as Lyle’s Texas plains.
It’s a shame, because the album starts with a terrific Lovett original, the title cut, the kind of mid-tempo country burner that he does better than anyone. He insists that he is “subject to the natural forces”, and, yes, that does rhyme with “horses”, but Lovett is too clever a wordsmith for that couplet, so he rhymes “forces” with “horse is”. Not done there, he doubles down on the creative wordplay with the genius bon mot, “Home is where my horse is”. Gotta Lovett. The other beauty here is “Empty Blue Shoes”, a bluesy she’s-gone song. For many fans, Lovett’s fast songs are just filler between his real calling card—slow heartbreakers like this one. Too bad there aren’t more of them on Natural Forces.
After these four songs, Lovett sings six covers in row by writers like David Ball, Eric Taylor, and Vince Bell. Each of these songs is given tasteful arrangements, featuring a pantheon of bluegrass’s best pickers, including Sam Bush on mandolin, Stuart Duncan of fiddle, and Viktor Krauss on bass, so you know it sounds terrific, plus Lovett himself is singing as well as ever. Yet it doesn’t feel like a Lyle Lovett album. The chosen covers offer little to get excited about—most of these are lugubrious, arid songs that bleed together indistinguishably. Only Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”, with a pretty piano-and-fiddle-based arrangement, stands out. But the album—and perhaps Lovett’s career—hits rock bottom with a terrible idea, a rock song that comes out of nowhere. Co-written by Robert Earl Keen, “It’s Rock and Roll” is a cheeky cautionary tale about rock star excesses, but with its interesting-only-once spoken intro and its distorted-guitar cliches, it’s impossible to argue that this song “rocks” exactly or has any rightful place on the album. Unfortunately, the song seals the deal that, despite some signs of life, Lovett is back in a holding pattern. Let’s hope this one is shortlived.