When Lyle Lovett married –- briefly — Julia “Pretty Woman” Roberts, the general public got a chance to marvel at him. The man is tall, odd, like no one else. Inevitably, some noted that he is not conventionally handsome, yet there was something arresting about him.
Perhaps only a few regular folks knew that Lovett was a country music artist, a member of an elite group of Texas songwriters who had combined Tin Pan Alley sophistication, folk directness, and country-and-western storytelling to create a dazzling hybrid form of American music. Only a few might have been fans of Pontiac, Lovett’s early masterpiece, a quirky album of music for people suspicious of Nashville slick but in love with the human stories that made country a music of the people.
But time can be a beautiful thing. Roberts and Lovett split, maintaining the sense of order in the universe. And Lovett went on to create a series of albums that transcended categories – being not merely beyond “country” but also beyond the other American styles that Lovett so fluidly assayed: folk, confessional rock, and jazz. An ugly man and an ungainly voice who made gorgeous music, Lovett became one of the most authoritative and unique musicians of the 1990s. Unlike his compatriots Nancy Griffith and Allison Krauss (who turned folk and bluegrass into easy listening music of a sort), Lovett made things weirder as he made them better. Lyle Lovett was like a Texas Tom Waits, an Amarillo Dylan with a puckish smirk and set of lyrical hooks at the ready.
Today Lovett releases the latest from what he calls his “Large Band”, the snarkily titled It’s Not Big, It’s Large. It is a recording both dark and sweet, funny and deadly serious at once. It cops Count Basie one minute and the Blind Boys of Alabama the next: sleek and rough, spare and lush, fresh and traditional. It is, very possibly, his best recording, which makes it one of the best recordings by any American musical artist in the last ten years.
Fans of Lovett and the Large Band know that it balances a horn section and a set of gospel singers, pedal steel and fiddle matched against plenty of funk. The surprise on It’s Not Big, It’s Large is that the Large Band is used with a studious judiciousness, setting each song in as little music as it demands. Indeed, the genius of the record is how often it settles for less: fewer instruments, fewer melody notes, and even fewer lyrical conceits. It is a deeply economical record while remaining a “large” album by any standard.
Many of the songs on Not Big are almost elemental. “Don’t Cry a Tear” takes a melody of five notes, rearranges it slightly, then repeats it in a higher register, with the words cycling around with tragic clarity: “Go if you must go / Turn if you must turn away / Don’t cry a tear for me / Laugh if you can smile / Run if you’re walking away / Don’t cry a tear for me / Shout if can speak / Sing if you mention my name / Don’t cry a tear for me”. The accompaniment has a classical clarity, a drone of electric and acoustic strings that step in slow majesty around the sadness of the words.
“This Traveling Around” is even more simple, a kind of children’s song in eight simple bars, rotating about the concept of fate without overly complex arrangement or pretense. The repetition of “And this travelin’ around / It’s gonna be the death of me” doesn’t get dull because the song slowly, insidiously fills in the reasons the narrator can’t go home. For all the apparent simplicity of it, the song builds gravity.
“I Will Rise Up” is also about death. Powered Russ Kunkel’s drums and a funky piano part by Matt Rollings, the tune plays like a dark gospel fable: “And I will rise up / Though I be a dead man / And I will stand tall / Until I meet my end”. Lovett’s voice is a conversational blues warble surrounded by the Large Band’s stunning supplemental singers, most notably Sweet Pea Atkinson and Harry Bowen (once the lead singers on Was/Not Was’ nutty hit “Walk the Dinosaur”) running raw blues riffs around the center. As the narrative builds, the band’s horn section kicks in and the drums pound louder in successive waves. The chorus repeats so often (culminating in the repetition of just “‘Til I meet my end!”) that this song too is like a nursery rhyme run gloriously amok.
But Lovett fans who wonder if this outing is all death and gloom needn’t back away; there is ample evidence of the songwriter’s wit and romanticism. “All Downhill” is driven by a jaunty groove and a sweet pedal steel lick: “A ride a good horse / I like him, of course / I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend / Sometimes we stay in”. Good? “I’ve had an excellent time so far / There’s only one thing I fear / I’ve been up so long on this lucky star / It could be all downhill from here”. You laugh, but Lovett also warns you.
Of course, what would a Lovett album be without a paean to Texas, or a girl, or both. “South Texas Girl”, though, is a mournful waltz about childhood and the power of an old song. Lovett’s narrator remembers his parents, letting him sip a little beer while sitting on a Ford Fairlane’s front bench seat, teaching him what “Corpus Christie” means and singing him an old folk song about “the undying love of a south Texas girl”. “And I didn’t know what the words meant or anything / I was just singing.” Lovett warbles as he sadly notes the passing of a world where this kind of childhood was possible. Here, again, the power of the Large Band is lovely: Kunkel gives the whole thing a syncopated kick, the guitars start as atmosphere and build to strength, and the vocal harmony lifts the chorus without seeming oversweet. As an extra treat, Guy Clark sings the chorus as both intro and outro alone on acoustic guitar, sealing the nostalgia.
Truthfully, It’s Not Big, It’s Large contains too many strong tracks to cover in a single review. The opener is a Basie classic written by Lester Young, an instrumental ripper that gives equal solo space to fiddle and bass trumpet, reminding us that “Western Swing” is a category of music that still lives on. “Up in Indiana”, a thumping song about a 22-year-old honey, is given two treatments — one country rockin’ and the other with an all-star bluegrass band (Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Victor Krauss, among others). “The Alley Song” is like a perfect Lovett song from one of his old records, a cycling melody that haunts, a lyric that ambles about geographically, and a mournful kind of wordplay that could only be Lovett: “I don’t have to see your eyes / To know what you’re not thinkin'”. “No Big Deal” addresses a cheating lover with a jaunty line about being “disconcerted”, but with a hip sway and bridge as tasty as anything from Cole Porter and lyrical turnaround that is Porter-esque too.
To say that It’s Not Big, It’s Large repays repeated listenings is wild understatement. The latest from Lyle Lovett is addictive listening. With each pass it gets deeper and darker, then on the other hand it gets more fun and joyous. “I Will Rise Up” hurts a little more with each spin, but then “Make It Happy” gets progressively more playful and soul-joyful too. The emotional expanse of the record is matched by the instrumental range of the band itself, from snapping swing (“Tickle Toe”) to rural church roots (“Ain’t No More Cane”). Across this great expanse of transcendent American music, Lyle Lovett emerges as a humble hero. He writes the stories of people struggling with the most important questions of identity, mortality, sex, and justice; he gives his brilliant band and singers a platform for individual expression; and he places the tradition of “country music” within the context of all of America’s best music, regardless of style.
Like the really great American musicians such as Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, Lyle Lovett deftly moves his music across boundaries without losing his own identity and message. His voice has that same American beauty too: a rough elegance that hides its handsome confidence behind a charming, inimitable crookedness. You can’t help but thinking of Lovett standing next to his unlikely bride, Julia Roberts, a contrast so absurd it was perfect.
With It’s Not Big, It’s Large, Lovett cements his status as one of our best, a profound artist operating with a combination of indirection and sincerity, craft and emotion. As further proof that popular American songcraft is a thriving art, this seamless album is one for the ages.