Lyle Lovett emerged onto the country scene in the mid 80’s, around the same time as several other major talents – Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter and his close friend Robert Earl Keen jnr, to name a few. He soon established a template for songs that took a sideways look at the nuances of human behaviour and relationships, imbued with polished and elegant arrangements, and melodies that could touch as well as impress. He frequently employed a sardonic humour about characters who were not as smart or as nice as they would have us believe; however, this was balanced with other songs that would encourage us to empathise for the people within, and through that, ourselves as well.
Over the course of his career he has recorded 13 studio albums of remarkable consistency. This makes it quite a challenge to list them in some sense of order, and one which is likely to be open to debate by other fans of his work.
The three that aren’t included here in the list of ten below are also well worth listening to, especially his tribute to Texas, ‘ Step Inside This House’, a rich tapestry of covers by other Texas songwriters, some well known, some much less so. ’Smile’ is a collection of songs recorded for movies, mostly with orchestral backings, and mostly dating from bygone eras. ‘Release Me’ was a contract filler for his record label, again mostly made up of songs from elsewhere – but still a very enjoyable record.
So feel free to disagree heartily with the choice of order; but hopefully agree that there are no low points in the Lyle Lovett catalogue, only that perhaps some records soar a little higher than others.
Number 10: ‘My Baby Don’t Tolerate’ (2003)
This may be the most fun album Lovett has realised, and he sets his stall for it by opening with three up tempo, groove ridden numbers ‘Cute as A Bug’, ‘My Baby Don’t Tolerate’ and ‘The Truck Song’. He follows these with the affecting ‘In My Own Mind’ and ’Nothing But a Good Ride’ (even if they are almost the same tune, it’s a really good tune!), and then the album continues to pile on the usual classy fare. A couple of songs fewer might have suited the record well, though it’s probably churlish to say that when the work is this good.
Number 9: ‘Natural Forces’ (2012)
With some great fun tracks (‘Pantry’, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel’), some beautiful ballads (‘Bayou Song’, and a haunting cover of Eric Taylor’s ‘Whooping Crane’), and a fantastically strong title track, ‘Natural Forces’ is another great example of what signifies a Lovett album. In fact, there is little to choose between this and the albums that came just before (‘It’s Not Big, It’s Large’ and ‘My Baby Don’t Tolerate’). All are beautifully realised, and all hugely enjoyable listens.
Number 8: ’12th of June’ (2022)
After a nearly ten year break, Lovett reappeared in 2022 with this offering, and rather wonderfully, it sounded like he’d never been away. Admittedly, there is a definite nod to his age here, in that quite a few songs have a decidedly retro feel, going back to the swing of the 1940’s and early 50’s. Not much to complain about there! Ageing like a fine wine, as the cliche goes.
There are several covers, though all are very cool cuts, from the second appearance of ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ (also on the ‘Smile’ collection) to the sassy ‘Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You’ and the laidback ‘Peel Me A Grape’. However, Lovett more than matches these with his original song ‘Are We Dancing?’ sounding like a classic from the Great American Songbook which wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from an Astaire musical; while finger clicking closer ‘On a Winter’s Morning’ also sounds like a lost classic, albeit one from the clubs rather than the big screen. The title track, meanwhile, can take its place among the best he has written in his own oeuvre. It’s really good to have him back.
Number 7: ‘Lyle Lovett and his Large Band’ (1989)
A turning point for Lovett, albeit one which had been hinted at on previous record ‘Pontiac’. This time, with the ‘Large Band’ at his disposal, he jumps whole heartedly into the world of big band swing and jazz for the first time. No beating around the bush, opener ‘The Blues Walk’ makes very clear that changes are here, and as it turned out, they were here to stay. ‘Here I Am’ is a most unusual song, with Lovett basically doing an extended monologue that has increasingly desperate and random attempts to woo the object of his desire punctuated by the big band singers and horns coming in for a punchy chorus. It’s odd, and it’s funny!
There are still some country songs shoehorned into the running order, though, especially towards the end of the record – and it seems a very typical Lovett thing to follow his own laconic ‘I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You’ with Tammy Wynette’s cheese-fest ‘Stand By Your Man’. It feels like a warning to any woman unlucky enough to cross the protagonist’s path! But just when it feels like the irony is too overwhelming, ‘Which Way Does That Old Pony Run’ comes in to genuinely pull on the heart-strings, and the supremely delicate ‘Nobody Knows Me’ then completes the mini set-within-a-set, with a really touching song about the simple bonds that can link us.
Number 6: ‘It’s Not Big It’s Large’ (2007)
The sound of a consummate professional who, having reached a peak in his career, sticks it in drive and cruises effortlessly along a clear highway lined by fabulous songs on one side and incredible musicians on the other. With spirited big band instrumental opener ‘Tickle Toe’ introducing the set, we then hear the dramatic opening chords of ‘I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane’, possibly Lovett’s most successful attempt to fuse his own songwriting with powerful gospel overtones. It’s a monster of a piece, sublime and powerful. Following this, we’re pitched in to a typically wry lyric on ‘All Downhill’ with a catchy western swing fiddle and groove. The delicacy of ‘Don’t Cry A Tear’ and ‘The Alley Song’ see him delve into heartbreak territory, while ‘South Texas Girl’ (with a cameo from Guy Clark) and ‘Up In Indiana’ move the country firmly into the West. Even by Lovett’s standards, a very, very fine record indeed.
Number 5: ‘I Love Everybody’ (1994)
This collection arrived after a somewhat tumultuous time in Lovett’s life, when he had a (very probably unwanted) brush with tabloid fame as the consort of A list movie star Julia Roberts. As a record, it is something of a departure, having stripped down acoustic production values (no Large Band arrangements here), and generally shorter song lengths.
It was a pleasure to see that Lovett had completely re-engaged his witty, wry humour on songs like ’Skinny Legs’, ‘Penguins’, ‘Record Lady’ and the deliciously awful first-person narrative of ‘Creeps Like Me’. In fact, there are plenty more vignettes to join that list, along with a handful of his usual high quality acoustic ballads. Following the huge concepts and productions on ‘Joshua Judges Ruth‘, this all came as a breath of fresh air.
Number 4: ‘Joshua Judges Ruth’ (1992)
This is very much a record for the connoisseur. With his style now fully established and his Large Band on board, Lovett added gospel to his musical palette, and allowed himself to stretch songs over six or even seven minutes. Perhaps there is generally less lightness and humour in these songs (certainly once you get past opener ‘I’ve been To Memphis’ and gospel tribute ‘Church’), and there are deep waters here. It’s hard to pick out particular songs; of all his albums, this is perhaps the most complete in terms of being a collection. There are some classic Lovett ballads which punch even harder than ever, in ‘North Dakota’ and ‘She’s Already Made Up Her Mind’. ‘Joshua Judges Ruth’ is significantly late night listening – so consider darkening the room, pouring a whiskey, and be ready for hard truths within.
Number 3: ‘Lyle Lovett’ (1986)
Debut albums are not always as successful as the songs that comprise them deserve, as artists potentially have to accommodate nervous record companies insisting on other hands coming in to guide. That his eponymous debut established the imprint for sharply written songs performed with a certain insouciant style is a testament to Lovett. It helps that he had a handful of songs that would remain prime cuts throughout his career, from the wonderful front porch storytelling of ‘Farther Down The Line’ and, well, ‘This Old Porch’ (co-written with Robert Earl Keen jr), to the unexpected humour of ‘God Will’ and the smart picking and jaunty vibe of opener ‘Cowboy Man’. ‘Closing Time’, meanwhile, ends the album with a clue as to where Lovett would take us, somehow engaging our emotions even as he rolls his eyes good-naturedly at some of the characters he describes – and with a subtle and engaging melody to boot. The album as a whole has a more stripped back sound than what was to come, but it is still effortlessly classy.
Number 2: ‘Pontiac’ (1987)
Many Lovett aficionados will understandably have this album at the very top of their list; and there are very few albums anywhere which open with a song as strong as ‘If I had a Boat’. With a few elegant yet witty and lightly used words, and a startlingly wonderful backing which is as light as souffle, Lovett somehow harnesses his cynicism to give us a song as close to perfection as is humanly possible, both clear eyed and full of positivity. Worth the entrance price alone.
That he then has a supporting cast of songs that delve into the very depths of human emotion and behaviour is more than a bonus (check out the very real sting in the tale of what sounds like an upbeat country tune ‘LA County’, or the existential hole at the heart of the title track). There’s a relatively traditional country sound running through many of these songs, and none the worse for that – ‘Give Back My Heart’ is super catchy, and ‘Walk Through the Bottomland’ is a wonderful song with classic country storytelling. As the record unfolds, we hear the emergence of the Big Band swing and sound that will influence many of his future albums in ‘M-O-N-E-Y’ and the funny (if slightly dated) ’She’s Hot To Go’, along with some jazzy tones in the form of ‘Black and Blue’. A great album that showed he was a major league talent.
Number 1: ‘The Road to Ensenada‘ (1996)
This time round, any additional fat was trimmed (not that there ever was much with Lovett). Songs were superbly arranged and played sublimely as always, and the whole range of Lovett’s writing and singing was employed to phenomenal effect. Frequently both sly and wry on songs such as ‘Don’t Touch My Hat’, ‘Her First Mistake’, and ‘Long Tall Texan’ (a duet with Randy Newman, which is surely a meeting of minds). Then, coming at you like an unstoppable force of good times and hilarity, are ‘That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas’ and ‘Fiona’. Some of his best, most raw ballads are on display in ‘Who Loves You Better’ and ‘Promises’. Heck, he even finds a hitherto unnoticed pop sensibility on ‘Private Conversation’ and ‘It Ought To Be Easier’, before finally topping it all off with the peerless title track, moving the listener through a cinematic tale with a gorgeous ear-worm of a melody and a meltingly beautiful guitar solo. A tour-de-force that is full of energy, and touches every aspect of the human experience, unusually not forgetting joy and fun.
What a talent, luckily I’ve seen him many times and he never fails to move the audience. I might have put Pontiac at number one if (as the reviewer points out) it hadn’t been for the title track The Road to Ensenada which is just beautiful. The album was released after his separation from Julia Roberts and some of the songs are routinely believed to be written with that in mind. My favourite artist (until you write about John Prine or Iris). Great article. Regards Steve