Album Review: Lyle Lovett – Natural Forces
On paper, an album that leads with four original songs—two of those hot in groove and content—then enters a long stretch of languid, story-centric covers, before wrapping up with an all-out rock and roll cut and a string-band reprisal of one of those earlier bawdy numbers might come off as a tad fragmented. Whose album it is makes all the difference in the world. And it happens to be Lyle Lovett’s, the embodiment of Texas musical breadth; the man who has, throughout his 24-year recording career—briefly begun in the progressive ‘80s country mainstream, but mostly spent out by the country/Americana border—dared to treat singer-songwriter folk, jump blues, western swing, honky tonk and gospel all as suitable building blocks for a body of work. Needless to say, Natural Forces makes good sense coming from him.
That famed Large Band of Lovett’s, referenced in the titles of no less than two of his albums, is not so large here. Gone is the bright, jazzy coloring the horns and gospely backing choir contributed to 2007’s It’s Not Big It’s Large. His new album is, for the most part, a sparer, more acoustic-based affair befitting the earthiness of both the material and the way he delivers it. Subtly, very subtly, he draws together the elements of his oeuvre, reminding us what elaborate introspective storytelling and singing the blues can have to do with each other. That point isn’t made terribly often—not convincingly, at least—in any sector of contemporary country.
The churning country-blues title track opens the set with a confession of restlessness rife with Texas (and generally southwestern) imagery, natural and man-made. Then Lovett turns to natural forces of a slightly different sort. He’s often written with prodigious wit, but “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” (for some reason—tracklist G-ratedness or the element of surprise—he opted not to use the lyric hook, “choke my chicken,” as the title) and “Pantry” are among his finest achievements in the double entendre arena. “Farmer Brown” swings hard, with Lovett and the drums, then Lovett and an enthusiastic chorus (made up of the musicians on the session) locked in an energetic call-and-response, invoking chicken-choking of both the barnyard and human male varieties. “Pantry” is the very next track. It’s a rollicking, steel-laced two-beat, and a plea for sexual and downhome culinary fidelity: “Keep it in your pantry.”
Once those two are out of the way, followed by a wistful ballad from Lovett’s pen titled “Empty Blue Shoes,” it’s almost all songs by Texans who aren’t him from there on out. New and original Lovett material is a welcomed thing; but in the case of a shortage, he knows how to select sturdy songs that feel natural for him to sing. A few of the songwriters he drew on for his 1998 two-disc covers album Step Inside This House pop up here as well. Townes Van Zandt’s an obvious choice. Eric Taylor and Vince Bell, not so much, although Taylor’s “Whooping Crane,” a yearning, finger-picking folk number that rather poetically captures a sense of environmental and spiritual loss, and Bell’s introspective “Sun and Moon and Stars,” which balances stubbornness and regret, are a couple of fine moments. So is David Ball’s “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too,” a willowy Texas waltz that plumbs the sadness on both sides of ebbing love.
These songs are all about evocative lyrics; their melodies and chord movements are understated, though pleasing, support. But Lovett sings them sensually, a little more sensually, it seems, than he has some songs of that ilk in the past. He sounds familiar enough with the material to relax and feel, rather than focus on, the words; to bring a bodily aspect of what he does—singing like a sly, blues-shaded devil—to that other, more confessional form of expression. Natural Forces probably won’t replace Lovett’s early triumphs—Pontiac, for one—as a career-defining recording, but it’s plenty satisfying.
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