Week 43: Lyle Lovett's Subtle Charms

Week 43: Lyle Lovett's Subtle Charms

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

In the 1980s, Lyle Lovett and k.d lang were posited as the contemporary exceptions to the rule that all country music was made by glamour girls, beefy rednecks in denim vests, or lanky cowboys squeezed into tight jeans and cowboy boots. The media was fascinated by Lovett and lang in part because they were spectacularly talented but also because they were so different. In a world of round holes they were square pegs, oddballs in the homogeneous country world. 

It’s not hard to discern why lang represented such a radical break from Nashville tradition, but Lovett was a much subtler outcast. Unlike fellow Texan Kinky Friedman, he didn’t transform himself into a cartoon to ease some of the pain of being different. Lovett doesn’t have the kind of heartrending voice that grabs you immediately, like Gary Stewart, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, or George Jones. And he hasn’t pursued self-destruction as epically as country’s sprawling pantheon of tragic hedonists. 

No, Lovett was good copy for a rather strange reason: He was and remains astonishingly ugly, with a face that looks like it has been beaten far too many times with a shovel, a crooked grin, and an unruly mop of hair straight out of Eraserhead. I don’t want to dwell on the man’s looks, but just as we’re fascinated by the physical appearance of those at the very height of the attractiveness scale—golden gods like Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey, and various supermodels with difficult-to-pronounce names—we’re similarly obsessed with folks on the very bottom of that continuum, especially if they’re able to not just compete but triumph in fields dominated by the preposterously beautiful. (See also Boyle, Susan.)

So when gargoyle-faced Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts, America’s Sweetheart, the press went predictably apeshit. The unlikely pairing was considered all the more remarkable considering Roberts’ history with just about every pretty boy in Hollywood, from Jason Patric to Kiefer Sutherland to Dylan McDermott. The media behaved as if Roberts had married less out of true love than as part of a misguided celebrity outreach to provide care and companionship to the spectacularly unattractive. 

Sadly, it’s safe to assume that more of the world knows Lovett for his marriage to Roberts than for his music. That’s a shame, since that marriage ended in the mid-’90s, while Lovett continues to record, tour, and act in films today—though in the interest of keeping this column relatively short and at least somewhat to the point, I am going to concentrate on Lovett’s first three albums. Alas, it is a country singer’s lot to be recognized as much for his failures as his successes. 

Lovett’s character actor mug, crazy hair, alliterative name, unlikely tabloid infamy, and large band all seem to promise a zaniness largely lacking from his oeuvre. Friedman turned his outsider nature into a broad joke; David Allan Coe broadcast his outlaw swagger to the high heavens. Lovett, in sharp contrast, favors slyer jokes, the kind you might miss the first or second time around. Take “Cowboy Man,” the first song off Lovett’s eponymous 1986 debut and his biggest chart hit to date. At first listen, it’s one of many country songs about men wanting to be cowboys and women longing for the cowpoke who will set their souls aflame. But dig a little deeper and the song becomes both intriguingly smutty—the “Cinderella” looking for her cowboy man wants to be “roped” on the prairie and ridden on the range—and surreal. The Cowboy-lover boasts,  “I've got a 40-gallon Stetson hat/With a 38-foot brim/We could dance around the outside baby/’Til we both fall in.” Lovett is dealing with familiar archetypes in an unfamiliar way. 

Lovett opts for a much darker vein of humor on the album’s second track, “God Will.” Here, Lovett compares, to tragicomic effect, God’s bottomless capacity for forgiveness with his own inability to overlook a cheating girlfriend’s infidelities. It’s a slow, sad lament in which the dark humor amplifies rather than diminishes the pathos. 

The rest of the melancholy album is informed by the knowledge that love has a tendency to fade and fracture no matter how badly both parties may want it to work. “Farther Down The Line” uses the rodeo as an elegant metaphor for the difficulty, if not impossibility, of sustaining a relationship with a difficult woman. Lovett bemoans the “classic contradiction/the unavoidable affliction” of women whose undying love comes with an expiration date. Listening to “Farther Down the Line,” I flashed back to the early stages of a romantic relationship with an ex-girlfriend I was certain would destroy my fragile sense of self. (Spoiler: she did.) I remember vividly thinking at the beginning of this doomed romance of myself as a rodeo rider atop an insane bull; I knew the relationship would end badly, with the emotional equivalent of cracked ribs, a shattered spine, and brain damage, but I was intent on riding that bull all the same. That’s what many of us seek in music and in pop culture; art that speaks directly to our own experiences on a direct, profound level. That doesn’t make us narcissistic or self-obsessed. It makes us human. 

“If I Were The Man You Wanted” finds Lovett once again sadly contemplating a doomed relationship with keen insight, this time from the perspective of a man who can’t give his partner what she desperately needs, not just wants. 

Lyle Lovett’s charms are substantial yet subtle but Lovett opts for much showier form of dark comedy on “An Acceptable Level Of Ecstasy (The Wedding Song)” a bluesy, jazzy shuffle about a mysteriously ritzy wedding secretly financed by a funeral director who has poisoned the entire saxophone section of the 20-piece band with an eye toward snagging some new clients.  Lyle Lovett begins as straight country, but by the time it reaches its final track, it’s delved into blues, jazz, folk, and old-timey big-band pop. Lovett jumps between genres, but not in a way that calls attention to the act. 

“If I Had A Boat,” the first song off 1988’s Pontiac, takes the travel-as-freedom metaphor in cheekily subversive direction as Lovett pines for both a boat and a pony to ride aboard that boat, and offers a revisionist account of The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s relationship that ends with the long-suffering Native American telling his ostensible Kemosabe to kiss his ass; he’s on a boat, motherfucker!

“L.A. County” is a short story in song form, a deceptively pretty ballad about a man and a woman who separately travel thousands of miles with an “old friend” by their sides for very different reasons. For the woman, the “old friend” is the man she ostensibly left the narrator to marry. For the narrator, it’s the shiny .45 he’ll use to murder his ex-girlfriend and her husband-to-be. Lovett’s singing is so matter-of-fact and casual that unless you really listen to the song it can be easy to mistake it for a beautiful little ballad about leaving the comfort of home for the glamour of the bright lights. 

Pontiac is the funniest of Lovett’s first three albums thanks to songs like “L.A. County,” “If I Had a Boat,” the tellingly named “M-O-N-E-Y,” “She’s No Lady” (as in, “She’s my wife”), and the clamorous ditty “She’s Hot To Go.” But it covers a wide emotional spectrum that stretches from the transcendently silly to the sad and mournful. 

On 1989’s Lyle Lovett And His Large Band, he throws down the gauntlet by opening with the jazzy little instrumental “The Blues Walk,” a move seemingly designed to put the focus on Lovett as leader of his band instead of on his beautifully wrought words. “Here I Am” continues in a defiantly bluesy vein, alternating Lovett’s deadpan spoken-word interludes with swaggering declarations of love. Here at least, Lovett seems to embrace being perceived as an oddball, reasoning, with warped anti-logic:

If Ford is to Chevrolet
What Dodge is to Chrysler
What Corn Flakes are to Post Toasties
What the clear blue sky is to the deep blue sea
What Hank Williams is to Neil Armstrong
Can you doubt we were made for each other?

Lyle Lovett And His Large Band captures Lovett at his most eclectic, segueing easily from the smooth harmonies and jangly acoustic guitar of the jaunty “Once Is Enough” to the intimate tenderness of “Nobody Knows Me” and the melodramatic intensity of “Stand By Your Man.” Lovett’s stirring performance of “Stand By Your Man” might not have been ironic—or maybe it was; it’s hard to listen to Lovett sing “Sometime it’s hard to be a woman” and not giggle just a little bit—but its placement at the end of The Crying Game sure was. 

There’s an awful lot of jazz—and blues and soul—in Large Band and in Lovett’s albums in general. But sonically at least it has more in common with the tasteful country/jazz fusion of Willie Nelson’s collaborations with Wynton Marsalis than the populist Western swing of Bob Wills. It took me a while to warm up to Lovett in part because his music is too polite for the honky-tonks; his music is less conducive to drunken sing-alongs than quiet reflection. Lovett writes beautiful lyrics but he doesn’t always write songs with big hooks or infectious melodies; the words carry the music rather than the other way around, which is why it’s hard to fall in love with his music the first time around. 

I had to listen intently to appreciate the first three Lyle Lovett albums I wrote about in this column. His songs creep up on you: Each new listen reveals something new and sneakily brilliant, a sly metaphor or deft turn of phrase or haunting, novelistic details. Lovett’s subtly genius cerebral country demands careful concentration. It also rewards it spectacularly. 

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
Buck Owens
Loretta Lynn
Shania Twain
Johnny Paycheck
Patsy Cline

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