You’ve heard of the country music outlaw? Lyle Lovett is the music’s reigning white-collar criminal — and, like many of his counterparts in the real world, he’s enjoyed little of the social ostracism his profession deserves. Instead, he’s living in luxury, his victims not even aware they’ve been had. The Texan’s first record produced three country hits; while he’s never had huge mainstream success, he’s one of the most respected songwriters in America. He tours with his crack Large Band as a classy, top-dollar theater act; he acts credibly in movies; his surprising marriage to Julia Roberts made him a household name and fodder for the tabloids. And through it all, Lovett’s assault on everything modern country music holds dear — its superficiality and gimmickry, falseness and bad taste — has been unrelenting. Why is Lyle Lovett walking around a free man?
The eponymous debut is a striking if ultimately unsuccessful affair. If he was trying to create a subversive album of truly contemporary country he was almost too successful — there’s even a Garth Brooks-like arena rocker (“You Can’t Resist It”) half a decade too early. Aside from “An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy (The Wedding Song),” a big-band-flecked epic of racial, musical and romantic entanglements, you have to pay close attention to catch the savagery beneath the record’s sheen. “Closing Time” is a brutal run at the “Piano Man” genre of romanticized barflies; in other songs, lines like “If I were the man that you wanted/I would not be the man that I am” at once mock old-fashioned country wordplay and dig a little bit deeper. In one pointed couplet, he asks in decidedly unrhetorical fashion who can forgive a lover’s infidelities: “God will/But I won’t,” he sings flatly. “And that’s the difference between God and me.”
Such elegant contempt for the opposite sex has left a lingering aroma of the misogynist around Lovett’s head. Pop lore has it that the bitterness stems from a lack of romantic success — not hard to comprehend for someone with his crinkly face, dishpan mouth and sarcasm as involuntary as a stutter. But this interpretation overlooks Lovett’s unconventional but palpable charisma and the fact that he hasn’t much use for the male of the species either. His next two records are impeccably designed, sui generis exercises in hyperintellectual eclecticism. Touches of country, pop, gospel, folk, jazz, bluegrass and rock elbow for prominence over the course of bitter nursery rhymes (Pontiac‘s touching “If I Had a Boat”), gender fun (Pontiac‘s “She’s No Lady”), this or that bit of classic country tunesmithery and complex jokes, like a rapturous run at “Stand by Your Man” on Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. The star of these two records, however, is the care with which Lovett constructs his songs. There are no throwaway lines, no empty rhymes, no clichés, no vacant effects; while the tunes don’t all work, not one is worthless. In rock’n’roll’s 40 disreputable years only Randy Newman has produced such adult music, or brought such irreproachable aesthetics to the task of charting moral sleight of hand.
Joshua Judges Ruth (the title a punning biblical swipe at his misogyny rep) begins with a wan essay on relationships: “I love a woman,” Lovett sings. “What I don’t know.” (The crack would later serve as a grim epitaph for his short-lived marriage.) The rest of the record is just more faultlessly conceived and executed bravura songwriting, much of it savage love poetry — titles like “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” and “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To” tell the story. A bit more self-confident, he sometimes lapses into over-seriousness, and the album seems a bit slow musically. But his nasty streak saves him: lest things drag, Lovett brings in a deeply irreligious song like “Church” or tosses in a death in the family. Lovett enjoys a good funeral: they’re good for a joke or two, and they make him feel alive.
In late 1994 Lovett released a collection of early and rejected songs. The original title — the upbeat Creeps Like Me — was changed to the rather more ominous I Love Everybody. Panned or ignored on release, the record actually bears some scrutiny. It’s divided into three nice parts: a group of offbeat song workouts, a sequence of almost nonsense-based curiosities and then a closing suite of love songs. The full complement of eighteen tunes is a little overlong, but as a curio it serves its purpose well.