Classic Americana Albums: Lyle Lovett “Pontiac” (MCA / Curb1987)

Lyle Lovett – Pontiac 1987

I am sure it is an apocryphal and familiar story, but it does have a point regarding Lovett’s surprising union with Julia Roberts. There was speculation about how the one might manage to live with the other being such a talented superstar spouse, but it was assumed that Ms Roberts would find a way to come to terms with her situation. The point being that Lovett is something of a Renaissance Man. A graduate in Journalism and German, an actor on both screen and stage and even something of a wiz at reining horses at the highest level being awarded the National Reining Horse Association Lifetime Achievement Award. That’s before you consider his musical, multiple Grammy Award-winning, career. Roberts, of course, was an actress of middling range if superior looks. Let’s be fair, she seems to do a lot of laudable charitable work.

Lovett received an award from Esquire magazine in 2006 and was cited as follows: “The secret of Lovett’s endurance comes down to the three C’s: class, charisma and consistency … in the studio and on the stage with his giant orchestra, he’s spent two decades gracefully matching genuine songcraft with A-list musicianship.”

So credentials established, let’s consider ‘Pontiac’, Lovett’s second album released in 1987 which starts with one of the most amusing songs ever and finishes with one of the bleakest – ample evidence of his versatility. Given that his vocals are so pure and clear, the quality and intent of his writing comes through and ‘If I Had a Boat’ is a perfect piece of escapist whimsy about irresponsibility. The vision of Lovett riding his pony thus always raises a smile but apparently, it’s an idea that appeals to others:
“But Tonto he was smarter and one day said Kemo Sabe / Kiss my ass I bought a boat I’m going out to sea”.

At the other end of the album the penultimate track, ‘Pontiac’ recounts a chilling tale of a war veteran contemplating his options on the back of his murderous military service. All these dark thoughts are ruminated on during the smoking of a cigarette, potentially a trivial precursor, or aftermath, to some horrific act. All of this with the most frugal of backing and a suitable tone of cold menace in the vocal. If you want a comparator then think of Randy Newman’s, ‘In Germany Before the War’  from the album, ‘Little Criminals’, a chilling tale of child murder. Alternatively, Malick’s ‘Badlands’ with its dry wasted scenery and mindless young murderers.

“And the girl there across the street / she sits there on her front porch swing / She never realizes / but I told her with my eyes”

Is she already dead?

In between these two, self-penned tunes are a further nine, all written by Lovett. Second up is ‘Give Me Back M Heart’, a jaunty tale of how a wanderer settles down – even if he can’t remember how. Much of the rest of the album is taken up with tales of love in it various forms, even to the point of a murder at a wedding in, ‘LA County’. ‘She’s no Lady’ and ‘Money’ bring their own wry and amusing takes on relationships. ‘Black and Blue’ has a more serious subject and point of view dealing with domestic violence – which takes us to probably the third of the truly outstanding tracks on this album, ‘Simple Song’. It’s quite allusive for a country song but the feeling of despair, disillusion and disenfranchisement is all-pervading.
They’ll take away by right what’s yours / And make you martyrs of your own cause / When they don’t know what cause it’s for.”

Much is made of making literal sense of things, particularly words, and of course, that’s part of what we try to do. That said, words that indirectly convey feelings and moods can be of equal importance and that’s what this track does – invoke a mood that finally leads to the complete despair of ‘Pontiac’.

So finally we come to the last track, ‘She’s Hot to Go’ which riffs on the looks of the title character – this being apparently OK because the final line comments on the singer’s equally ordinary looks. You might say it is of its time but I am not sure what time that was and it doesn’t sound well today. I suppose its meant to be humorous. If ‘She’s No Lady’ comes close then, ‘Hot to Go’ crosses a line and is a false note to end the album. Its only possible saving grace is that perhaps it lifts the mood after the title track.

That final caveat should not detract from what is a classic album integrating a variety of styles and genre. As Wikipedia would have it:
Texas Country, Americana, Outlaw Country, Bluegrass, Western Swing, Country Folk, Country Pop, Country Rock and Jazz”.

The man’s clearly a genius – but whatever it’s an album with a range of influences, full of fine singing and playing with generally intelligent, even slightly elliptical lyrics. This was the start of a notable and long-lasting career from a great artist. Very highly recommended.

Author: Gordon Sharpe

Music fan for more than 50 years and I think it gets better than ever - I love the Americana scene.

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