Lyle Lovett is truly an American original. The singer/songwriter class, country music proper, and the jazz set all want to want to selfishly claim dominion over his legacy, because he offers such important appeal and support to them all, and does so while exuding such a handsome level of talent and skill.
But the only true way to describe Lyle Lovett is a redneck Texan who’s constantly trying to get above his raising, yet colossally failing to do so, and falling back on his redneck roots to the delight of both himself and the rest of us. He’s simultaneously been suited up leading large swing jazz bands, and been pinned up against a fence by a ranging bull while trying to save his uncle’s life. He was once married to Julia Roberts, and has regularly performed in reining competitions with quarter horses. There’s no box Lyle Lovett fits in comfortably.
When Lyle announced his latest album and his first album in 10 years with the incredibly touching tune “12th of June,” it had us all rubbing our hands together in anticipation for what we hoped would be an intimate, yet involved album delving into the the subtleties and nuance of songcraft in a way that Lyle Lovett has mastered over the decades, enacting a transition to a more quiet and simple era for his music heading into the twilight of his career.
So then of course, Lyle Lovett starts this record off with a wild and upbeat big band jazz instrumental, full of loud and propulsive improvisation moving in the exact opposite direction you were expecting, but still wholly appropriate to the Lyle Lovett universe. He then chases that with a songs about how “Pants Is Overrated,” a perfectly enjoyable and ridiculous song, instigating unwanted arguments over the singular/plural usage of clothing articles, and almost reminding us of something Frank Zappa would compose that at one point transitions into a lullaby. Maybe Lyle is subtly lobbying for the uncancellation of Charlie Rose.
Lyle Lovett has always been a bit of a smart ass, delivering sardonic humor in his music with deadpan countenance. He loves to screw with us, and it’s pretty heartening to see that his sense of mischief has not escaped him in the ten years since he was in the studio, and now that he’s well into his 60s. This comes up in many of the more jazzy numbers on this record, including the impudent and audacious “Peel Me a Grape,” and the bluesy “Pig Meat Man.”
But five tracks in, you’re wondering if you’re going to get anything resembling “country.” Well just be patient. The best way to describe 12th of June is a jazz EP, and country singer/songwriter EP all scrunched together. Not that the diversity of styles will surprise long-time Lovett devotees and it shouldn’t, but Lovett does challenge the audience to shift gears quite abruptly on this record, with little effort or worry at making those transitions seamless. Some of the country listeners may not even make it to the more country-sounding material.
Those that do will be rewarded. In the 2nd half, you get “12th of June,” which really can’t be harped on enough. It’s early, but this is a Song of the Year-level offering, and really a master class of how to intertwine emotion and memory into a song. “The Mocking Ones” finds a similar level of elevated emotional impact and songwriting mastery, and is a bit more country in sound and approach.
12th of June was definitely worth the effort to release if only to deliver these two worthy songs into Lyle Lovett’s volume of musical masterworks. It’s true that this album lacks a cohesiveness of many of his best records that also explored his country, blues, jazz, and swing inspirations concurrently, and that his voice is beginning to show signs of age. A couple of the songs here just feel a bit forced in the approach.
But at 64, Lyle Lovett has earned the latitude to do whatever he wants, and whenever he wants. He takes full advantage of that on 12th of June … including releasing an album named for a month on the month before.
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