After emerging with the triple punch of Pontiac
(Curb, 1988), Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
(Curb, 1989), and Joshua Judges Ruth
(Curb, 1992), singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett's career took a few detours. My Baby Don't Tolerate
(Curb, 2003)Lovett's first album of original material in five years, following a serious farm accidentwarned that Lovett's characteristically dry wit was on the wane. Happily, with It's Not Big It's Large
(Curb, 2007), Lovett returned with an album that comfortably blended blues, country, folk, bluegrass, a touch of Western swing...and a return to the lyrical strength that has positioned him as a younger Southern contemporary of fellow wordsmiths Randy Newman
, Bob Dylan
, and Leonard Cohen.
Lovett would likely shy away from such auspicious comparison, but with Natural Forces, he's delivered an album that's a career milestone; a smaller ensemble disc that covers material written by songwriters to which Lovett paid tribute on Step Inside This House (Curb, 1998) in addition to a few new faces. But before succumbing to the temptation of calling it Step Inside, Volume Two, Lovett opens Natural Forces with four originalsin particular, the potent title trackthat suggest he may be unequaled at documenting what it means to be American.
Ever-loyal, Lovett's core group includes old friends Viktor Krauss (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums), Dean Parks (electric guitar), Paul Franklin (pedal steel) and Matt Rollings (piano), as well as two of the newgrass scene's most powerful instrumentalists, fiddler Stuart Duncan and mandolinist Sam Bush. Lovett, with his always languid, ever-so-slightly rough voice, covers a wide swath of music, ranging from his own humorous look at infidelity (the countrified but swinging "Pantry") and poignant ballad ("Empty Blue Shoes") to a song co-written with Robert Earl Keen ("It's Rock and Roll") that, well, rocks harder than anything he's done before, and mirrors Randy Newman's "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," from Bad Love (Reprise, 1999) in its self-effacing cynicism.
But it's Natural Forces's title track that's the standout. Deep in meaning without resorting to a big stick, Lovett weaves a story that starts with a rider on the American plains claiming "I'm subject to the natural forces / home is where my horse is" and ends with a heartfelt statement about America at war: "All the sacrifice and the death and war / Lord I pray that I'm worth fighting for." Wrapped in a visceral roots groove and an arrangement that uses the instruments at hand to create, with a dropped beat here and there, an ebbing and flowing instrumental narrative; a wonderfully constructed but completely organic sonic backdrop that tells a story every bit as compelling as Lovett's simple, direct and powerful lyrics.
As a follow-up to It's Not Big, Natural Forces reaffirms that Lovett's mid-period lull is over, and he's back, renewed and reinvigorated with one of the best albums of his career. Lovett's ability to wax humorous while, at the same time, deal in matters of the human condition with poetic economy, is only matched by the understated and, indeed, natural force of his music.
Personnel: Lyle Lovett: acoustic guitar, vocals; Viktor Krauss: bass, background vocals (2, 11); Russ Kunkel: drums (1-11), background vocals (2); Matt Rollings: piano (1-11), background vocals (2, 11); Dean Parks: electric guitar (1-11), background vocals (2, 11); Paul Franklin: steel guitar (1-11), background vocals (2, 11); Stuart Duncan: fiddle (1-6, 8-12), background vocals (2, 11); Sam Bush: mandolin (1-3, 8-12), background vocals (2, 11); Keith Bradley: Announcer, "The Score" (1); Keith Swell: background vocals (2, 11), additional acoustic guitar (2), harmony vocals (3, 4, 8, 10, 12), acoustic lead guitar (12); Billy Williams: background vocals (2, 11); Johnny Lee Schell: background vocals (11); Arnold McCuller: background vocals (11), harmony vocal (11); Sweet Pea Atkinson: background vocals (11); Sir Harry Bowens: background vocals (11); Willie Greene Jr. : background vocals (11); Toby Mason: background vocals (11); Vasco Lucas Nunes: background vocals (11).