If there's a fault to be found with Release Me, Lyle Lovett's latest album, it's that most of the songs weren't written by Lyle Lovett.
Of the album's fourteen tracks only two were penned by the idiosyncratic Texas singer-songwriter who startled listeners with original, genre-bending records when he first hit Music Row in the mid-80s. In the decade and a half following his debut, Lovett would release a series of records that fused various musical styles as well as seemingly incompatible generational differences. Plus, nobody wrote songs like he did.
Consider 1988's Pontiac. With "If I Had a Boat," Lovett re-worked Old West iconography into an enchanting defense of modern escapism. A year later, Lovett would record the jazz-inflected duet "What Do You Do/The Glory of Love" with Francine Reed on Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. The song re-casts a pair of outdated his-and-hers stereotypes as a modern couple amusingly nostalgic for the squabbling spouses of a Conway and Loretta track. Another stand-out is 1996's Road to Ensenada, an elegant, heartbroke record that gave us gems like "Her First Mistake." Here Lovett sings from the perspective of a journeying n'er-do-well who tries to win a fickle woman's heart by accurately guessing her back story. The sly narrator is a familiar type, but his wooing methods, like the song's billowing sound, are refreshingly novel.
Then in the 2000s something changed, as Lovett's records came farther and fewer between. A full seven years would pass between Ensenada and Lovett's next album of original material, My Baby Don't Tolerate. (In the gap: live record, anthologies, two discs of covers.) It would then be another four years until the mostly-original It's Not Big It's Large. In 2009 Lovett gave us Natural Forces, half of which was covers.Now with Release Me, the covers grossly out number the original songs, and we're stuck wondering: what happened to Lyle Lovett? Perhaps this latest record, though sparkling with the artist's characteristically brilliant studio production, is simply fulfilling one last contractual obligation. After 26 years, Lovett is leaving Curb/Lost Highway Records and (as he puts it in interviews) venturing out on his own. The title and the cover photo of a hogtied Lovett lend this theory credence. But this fact doesn't account for the last eight years of mostly cover work. Music history is awash with accounts of aging artists losing their hunger or forgoing their talents after getting religion or something, but given Lovett's vigorous touring schedule, the former doesn't seem likely, and we can only speculate on the latter. No, a more persuasive yet far scarier answer is that Lyle Lovett has run out of material. Why else would he drop "Baby It's Cold Outside" smack in the front-half of a February release? A couple key themes can be traced all through Lovett's catalog: unrequited love, of constant travel and road-weary loneliness, of the pain of lost family ties. For a man who seems to have finally found love, tours because he seems to take great pleasure in it, and lives on his family farm and in his grandparents' house, what relevance does his richest material still have to his life? Must an artist whose best work brims with hurt and defensive humor have to keep hurting to write new songs? Whatever the answers may be, the fact remains that in 2012 Lovett continues to record other people's music; thankfully, his tastes are eclectic enough to at least keep the covers interesting. His title track is the song that made Ray Price famous, and here, Lovett's voice matches beautifully with K.D. Lang's. Deeper into the record, Lovett, like country-legend Waylon Jennings before him, takes on Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," though Lovett smartly slows it down to a blues stomp. On the album's second half, Lovett evokes Jennings again lyrically with "Keep It Clean," a Depression-era blues number that inspired verses in Jennings' "Waymore Blues." Lovett plucks again from the early twentieth-century with "One Way Gal" before moving on to his two originals, "Girl With the Holiday Smile," which was released earlier on a 2011 EP, and "Night's Lullaby," a graceful ballad that proves Lovett can still write, even if sporadically. Another noteworthy track is "White Freightliner Blues," a Townes Van Zandt jig rooted in the tradition of Texas swing. Lovett treats the song well, keeping its uptempo pace intact while lending it a polish that only his masterful studio band can provide. As a whole, the album sounds like a scatter-shot of Lyle Lovett's influences, but it's the final track that's a real head-scratcher: a simple, piano-accompanied rendition of a 16th century hymnal that, when compared to Lovett's other occasional gospel flourishes, sounds almost willfully unoriginal. But perhaps such an ending is fitting for the singer-songwriter. Whereas Lovett once looked back to the past for inspiration to create something new, he now seems stuck back in time, unable or unwilling to craft his influences into the kind of art he was once known for, art that surprises as much as it reminisces.