In 2000, Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich called a local Austin, Texas, community radio station with a pledge. Asked about the reason for the donation, Wassenich quipped, “because it keeps Austin weird”. A spontaneous phrasing appreciative of a town’s quirky charm became a branding strategy. The irony of the market is that when “off-the-beaten-path” attracts a following, a desire to replicate can follow, threatening the very allergy to conformity that fuels eccentricity.
For three decades now, Austin’s idiosyncratic southern neighbor Lyle Lovett has been flummoxing genre purists while carving out a loyal, niche following. Whether it was the Houston native’s lean, angular build accentuated by crisply tailored suits (not the Nudie suits, mind you), his full-bodied curly mountainous mohawk of the 1980s, his oft-inscrutable deadpan and prematurely weathered visage or the absurdist and transgressive humor of lyrics that critiqued the commercialization of settler colonialism through Tonto’s rebellious urge to board sailboats with a pony, Lyle Lovett was one of a kind. Initially seen—like his 1980s contemporary from Canada, k.d. lang—as a phenomenon at loggerheads with the corporate Nashville machine, some, like writer Kelefa Sanneh, argue that what Lovett (and others) did was turn “…the anti-Nashville sensibility into a viable business model.”
Lovett’s albums have always contained a creative stew of genres—playfully engaging jazz, big band swing, western swing, folk, gospel, and blues with lyrics that hewed close to the engaged genre’s tradition or offered a playful dissonance, often doing both in the same song. By the mid-1990s, this musical menagerie had become synonymous with Lovett (™). It is within view of this landscape that Lyle Lovett is releasing 12th of June, his first new album in ten years and the first on the Verve Records label. In advance press for the album, Lovett admits that this album provided a taste of a little of everything in the singer-songwriter’s back catalog for new fans. For long-term fans who do not need a gateway album, 12th of June makes up in familiar creature comforts what it lacks in deviation from the corpus.
The ten-year gap didn’t apply any rust to Lyle Lovett and his merry band of collaborators. At this point, Lovett has polished this amalgamation of styles to a near-flawless sheen. Much like 1989’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, 12th of June begins with swinging big band jazz instrumental work. Before Lyle’s distinctive crooning appears in the second track, he’s centered the crack assembly of musicians that drive this album. He follows this up with the gospel-flecked wry humor of “Pants Is Overrated”. Prompted by a search for his favorite trousers, Lovett’s narrator invokes the Scots, Jesus’ couture, and babies’ “birthday suits” within a call-and-response song structure that has echoes of “Church” from 1992’s Joshua Judges Ruth and seems to be a playful parable against conforming to conventions.
He carries on with some playful Nat King Cole and Dave Frishberg (of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” fame) covers, highlighting Lovett’s fondness for sardonic wit and American jazz. “Her Loving Man” embodies the deadpan seriousness with which Lovett has performed songs in the “traditional” country music style of the late 1960s, but often with an unexpected twist. He sings that she (the subject of the narrator’s affection) is the “queen of know / K-N-O-W, I mean”, thus upending our assumption of this being an ode to a recalcitrant lover until he spells it out for us. Again, this loving appropriation of traditional country with a twist has been done effectively by Lyle Lovett before, most notably and more powerfully in his nonironic, straightforward delivery on his cover of the Tammy Wynette classic, “Stand By Your Man”.
The emotional heart of this new album is the title track, “12th of June”. This tender ballad opens with a gentle acoustic guitar in conversation with a rippling brook of piano notes that embody the river of life. Lovett’s songwriting skills and attentive ear to the human condition are displayed here. The song accounts for the beautiful fragility of this life, grounding its narrative in a tender recounting of his four-year-old twins’ birth, images of generations crossing in covered dish reunions where a Texas creek runs through a family cemetery, and the invoked voices of the departed who watch over us. It is reminiscent of the heartfelt imagery and invitation of 1998’s “Step Inside This House”. It repeats the narrative twist of 1992’s “The Last Time”, where, as the song winds down, we discover our narrator is offering this reflection from the other side of the veil.
The comparisons mentioned above don’t mean that 12th of June is derivative or a cheap knock-off. But it is familiar. It is carefully curated and meticulously distilled Lyle Lovett. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is smooth and satisfying on the way down.
Any review of this new album or his previous work would be remiss without recognizing the importance of blues singer Francine Reed, a frequent conversation partner with Lovett on jazz standards and original blues compositions. Their mesh of vocal styles is kinetic, playful, and essential to the body of work here and before.
The album concludes with more songs on love’s longings, disappointments, and hope (“The Mocking Ones”, “Are We Dancing?”, and “On a Winter’s Morning”) along with a love song to the simple pleasures of bacon (“Pig Meat Man”) in which he shouts out to iconic Nashville eating establishments.
The 12th of June is a welcome return to form for Lyle Lovett after a ten-year absence from recording and compelling testimony that he and his collaborators are still masters of their trade. Hopefully, those introduced to Lovett with this album will be led to some of his earliest and strongest work in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, those firmly in the camp will find their desires satiated and appetites whetted for future encounters “further down the line”.