By 1989, Lyle Lovett had already been kicking around for a couple of years. He cut a unique figure from the start, a Texan Eraserhead with a knife-slash mouth, and there was a buzz about his songwriting chops based on tunes like “God Will” and “Pontiac” — perfectly-crafted little gems, both gorgeous and unflinching. But there was, in his earlier records, a sense that Lyle was still a work in progress. His persona shifted variously to the traditionalist and ironist camps. With Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, from its ruthlessly literal title on down, he gets definitive by getting ambiguous. It’s a neat trick.
“Here I Am” (download) stakes out Lovett’s unique territory. A stomping, shouting blues vamp is continually interrupted by a series of surreal, goofy asides. It’s pure vaudeville, of course — extending from a tradition that traces back to “The Arkansas Traveler” and the minstrel show — but rendered with such deadpan earnestness that it creates its own interzone of doubt and indeterminacy: Is he serious? Is he kidding? Maybe both, or neither.
That’s a delicate balancing act. The key is to never let the audience see you wink, and it’s the rare artist who can pull it off consistently. Randy Newman used to own this patch of real estate, back in the 70s — Tom Waits, too; but Newman’s satire has grown blunter with the years, and Waits’s songs have opened up emotionally. David Byrne can still manage it, on occasion, mining the common ground between yearning and absurdity with nerdy intensity.
But Lyle Lovett has a way of sidling up to his target, that zone of unease, from a multitude of angles, and hitting that bullseye every time. Listen again to “Nobody Knows Me.” (download) Over the halting murmur of a quartet (with John Hagen’s indispensable cello weaving through), there’s a tumble of gentle, homey imagery — coalescing into a scenario of betrayal that the cheating narrator doesn’t even try to justify or excuse. The blankness is tantalizing. You listen for a hint of either remorse or malice, for callousness or self-loathing, but it never comes. In the end, the title is the only truth; nobody knows him, because he’s ultimately unknowable, perhaps even to himself. All this out of a sparse lyric and a handful of broken chords.
And he does it again and again. “If You Were To Wake Up” is both swoony and menacing; “Which Way Does That Old Pony Run” is a very funny lyric built on a foundation of frustration and discontent; and while “I Married Her (Just Because She Looks Like You)” falls in the classic country tradition of one-liner titles, the sheer sickness of the sentiment makes the laughter catch in your throat.
But those are singer-songwriter tricks; we knew he could do that stuff. What the hybrid Large Band format accomplishes is to let Lyle, for the first time, really change up his sound, to explore the white-gospel and blues strains that predominate in his later work. It also lets him replicate the lush arrangements of countrypolitan Nashville, as on the record’s best-known moment, a cover of Tammy Wynette’sÂ “Stand By Your Man.”Â (download) It’s a remarkable cover, but the hubbub at the time seemed to be for all the wrong reasons. There mere fact that a man was singing a song so identified with a female singer found it pegged as a joke, or a gender-flip — an impression bolstered when Lyle’s version was used for cheap comic effect in the 1992 movie The Crying Game. “Stand By Your Man” became Exhibit A for Lyle’s status as a country iconoclast; it was simply assumed that he was subverting the song, rather than interpreting it.
But a closer look shows that Lyle is doing something smarter and more subtle. For one thing, he sings the lyric absolutely as written, with all pronouns intact. And here’s the shocker: when you look at those words, there’s no intratextual evidence that the narrator — the implied “I” of the song (implied because the song is entirely constructed in the second- and third-person) must be a woman.
Q: Yeah, but what kind of man sings a line like “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman”?
A: Any man with working eyes and a functional capacity for empathy.
Once you get past any reductive assumptions, a male narrator actually opens the song to some interesting angles. Maybe he’s an omniscient observer, or a sympathetic bystander (also possibilities with a female singer) — a Hollywood-style Gay Best Friend, even. Or maybe it’s a third-party man encouraging a couple to get back together, Ã la the Beatles’ “She Loves You”— perhaps even as he is himself not-so-secretly in love with the woman; wheels within wheels.
Or maybe he’s the cheating husband himself, obliquely acknowledging the damage he’s done and the pain he’s caused, even as he begs for forgiveness and love. Maybe he’s even the same son-of-a-bitch who sings “Nobody Knows Me.” As with the whole of this dark, funny, compelling record, it’s the ambiguity that fascinates.