First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2010, Volume 17, #4
Written by John Metzger
Tue April 20, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
As eclectic as his albums have been, Lyle Lovett has suffered the same criticisms that greet nearly every artist who survives past the first decade of his career. Namely, as he has refined his ideas, patterns began to emerge within his work. This has leant a sense of familiarity to his endeavors that some folks would classify as following a formula. For a while, Lovett skirted the debate by crafting material for films and releasing a concert album (Live in Texas) as well as a collection of cover songs (Step Inside This House). He also developed his acting career. Not surprisingly, then, for the better part of the past 14 years, Lovett has worked at a snailís pace.
Although he routinely has explored the full breadth of his Texan roots, Lovett generally has excelled at finding ways of binding everything together in order to turn his outings into cohesive statements. With this in mind, itís hard to know quite what to make of Lovettís latest gambit. At first glance, Natural Forces doesnít meet his usual objectives. Its music is rather flighty, jumping here, there, and everywhere without much rhyme or reason. Itís Rock and Roll lives up to its name, while Bohemia is a mysterious, jazz-blues concoction. Elsewhere, the playful, Bo Diddley-driven beat of Farmer Brown tumbles into the Western swing of Chicken Reel, and Empty Blue Shoes is a yearning, mid-tempo ballad.
Lyrically, Natural Forces is just as scattered. There are songs about love, life, and social justice. Yet, the material fails to coalesce into an overriding theme. Consequently, despite the fact that it is composed of new recordings, Natural Forces feels like a career-spanning retrospective. It leaps back and forth across Lovettís past work without having any sort of agenda, other than to showcase his evocative vocals and the versatility of his longstanding big band. Maybe this is precisely the point, and Natural Forces is meant to be just an easy-going set of Lovett doing what he does best.
Complicating matters, Lovett wrote only a few of the tracks himself. For the rest of the affair, he revisits the concept that drove Step Inside This House. Surveying the landscape of Texas-based songwriters, Lovett brings some much-needed attention to an array of underappreciated artists. Itís difficult to quibble with his choices, too, especially since Lovett is so masterful at tackling material penned by the likes of Townes Van Zandt (Loretta) and Eric Taylor (Whooping Crane).
Nevertheless, Natural Forces has a flaw that emerges from its construction. Lovett tucked all of the cover songs into the center of the endeavor, and he placed all of his own compositions at the extremes. This might have been a successful strategy if Lovettís material contained its usual emotional sharpness. Aside from the title track and Empty Blue Shoes, however, the rest of his tunes feel somewhat slight, even if they are free-spirited and fun. Consequently, Natural Forces seems more transitional than Lovett likely intended. Itís as if he is hedging his bets, biding his time, and waiting for his Muse to strike again.
Of Further Interest...
Natural Forces is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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