It's Not Big It's Large
John Metzger's #14 album for 2007
South Texas Girl: Memorable Song #5 for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Thu September 6, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Although he has retained his reputation as a reliable performer in concert, Lyle Lovett has been lost and adrift as a songwriter for the better part of the past 11 years. Whether itís a coincidence or not, his troubles began shortly after the demise of his high-profile marriage to Julia Roberts in 1995. The following year, he released The Road to Ensenada, an effort that not only stood, until now, as his crowning achievement, but also walked a fine line between being a breakup album and a lighthearted affair. Since then, however, he has been mired in what appears to be a rather long stretch of writerís block.
In fact, with the exception of My Baby Donít Tolerate, his solid if disjointed studio set from 2003, Lovett has tried every trick in the book to pass the time while waiting for his muse to return. In lieu of recording a proper album of new material, he has added a two-disc suite of cover songs (Step Inside This House); a concert collection (Live in Texas); a motion picture soundtrack that mostly featured instrumentals (Dr. T & the Women); a compilation of tunes he contributed to other films (Songs from the Movies); and a retrospective (Anthology, Volume 1: Cowboy Man) to his canon. Therefore, itís impossible not to view his latest effort Itís Not Big Itís Large as a make-or-break proposition. Fortunately for Lovett, the endeavor is both a long overdue return-to-form as well as the strongest and most cohesive outing in his catalogue.
There are several tracks on Itís Not Big Itís Large that initially stand out ó most notably, South Texas Girl and This Traveling Around. Recasting Bruce Springsteen as a Texas crooner with lyrics that owe a debt to Steven Fromholz, the former tune is a remembrance of a car ride Lovett took with his family as a child. It begins and ends with the weathered vocals of Guy Clark, and the transitions between Clark and Lovett enhance the perception that through the song Lovett is connecting the strands of his life from some future vantage point. It is a reflection upon how things have changed as well as how they have stayed the same, and via this self-examination, itís possible to hear Lovett rediscovering who he is as a songwriter. On the latter cut, the notes from an acoustic guitar twinkle gently like stars in the nighttime sky as Lovett openly reveals his broken heart and finds the will to continue.
The rest of the material on Itís Not Big Itís Large seems, at first glance, to be rather inconspicuous. Over the course of his career, Lovett has taken a rather eclectic approach to his albums, and the familiar blend of gospel, blues, jazz, folk, country, and rock styles with which he typically has worked continues to filter through his songs. The difference, however is that where the lines that divided one genre from the next once were quite pronounced ó on his 1989 effort Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, for example ó they now have become blurred to the point where he is able to switch gears midstream.
Throughout Itís Not Big Itís Large, Lovett ó with the help of a cast that includes guests Sam Bush and Bela Fleck as well as longtime associate Viktor Krauss ó moves among the many implements in his toolbox like a master craftsman by adding dashes of brassy horns to the country-tinged fare and subtle shades of mandolin, pedal steel, and banjo to his jazz and blues concoctions. The result is that Itís Not Big Itís Large shifts seamlessly from place to place without ever shocking the senses. Although the aforementioned highlights provide a few attention-grabbing and fully gratifying moments, the rest of the affair takes a little longer to coalesce. Still, it ought not to be dismissed quite so readily because with time, Lovettís grander vision begins to come into view.
When the songs are taken on their own merit, it isnít immediately apparent that Itís Not Big Itís Large is a loose-knit, conceptual work. In order to help guide listeners to this perspective, the album has been sequenced carefully. A cover of Lester Youngís Tickle Toe serves as its overture while reprises of the sharecropper anthem Ainít No More Cane and the bluegrass romp Up in Indiana form the setís finale. At times, Lovettís lyrics turn primal and less descriptive than they have in the past, but the way in which his latest compositions inform each other provides all the meaning that is necessary. On tracks like I Will Rise Up and This Traveling Around, he repeats his lyrics until they become mantras of survival that allow him to beat back the weariness of his lonely existence on the road. On the latter cut as well as on The Alley Song, he laments for loves that have been lost, and he pines for women who, as he puts it, got the best of him. During Up in Indiana, he dreams from his prison cell of a gal from the Hoosier State ó which, incidentally, is where he and Roberts were married ó while on No Big Deal, he seeks redemption by couching a tale of sexual betrayal inside a Sunday morning confession. He also playfully addresses the precipice upon which he has sat since the mid-í90s (All Downhill). In effect, what Lovett did to pull himself out of his rut was to confront the darker corners of his heart and mind with the determined desire of removing the obstacles that had been keeping him from moving forward. Consequently, Itís Not Big Itís Large is the kind of introspective, late-career (or in this case mid-career) masterpiece that rights a ship that many had thought was lost for good.
It's Not Big It's Large is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box