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His face looks like an unmade bed, and his high-rise hair could make even Isaac Mizrahi blush. But beyond that creaky smile, Lyle Lovett’s most pronounced feature is his champion heart, five sizes too big and beating loudly in the sorrow-dipped songs he crafts and croons. After Julia Roberts turned out to be a not-so-pretty-woman and deserted the guy just a few minutes after the honeymoon, the Texas-born Lovett scripted a goodbye letter in the form of 1996’s The Road to Ensenada. The Grammy-winning album could have been a scolding slapand who wasn’t eager to witness the spoiled starlet taking some hits from the guy at the end of the bar?but instead turned out to be a witty weeper that informed his ex (not to mention the startled People-reading public) that straying from his backyard Texas nature was his fault, not hers. And again, he penned his sentiments with thick, sweet blood.
On Step Inside This House, Ensenada’s follow-up and the singer-songwriter’s seventh studio album, Lovett is once again in a Texas mood, but this time he’s honoring his heroes, not bidding farewell to a paramour. Lovett, who turns 41 on Nov. 1, devotes two discs and more than 80 minutes to covering sunken treasures from the minds of his favorite Texas songwriters. Lovett didn’t author one of the 20-plus tracks on Step Inside This House, yet he handles each song with the compassion and genre-busting creativity he’d show for one of his own. Somehow he’s managed to tap into the troubled hearts of other woebegone songsmithsmen who paint their country songs with pop, rock, and blues pastelsand weave together a barroom bullshit session filled with as much bluster as honesty. Just Lyle and the boys, ruminating about what ails them (and perhaps throwing back a few in the process).
The album comes off one part honorary hodgepodge, one part personal hall of fame. The first disc celebrates 12 different writers, most notably country-rocker Steven Fromholz, whose “Bears” kicks off the album and is a strong candidate for its most fulfilling track. Maybe that’s because Fromholz’s absurdist lyrics could have come straight from Lovett’s own songbook (“So meet a bear and take him out to lunch with you/And even though your friends may stop and stare/Just remember that’s a bear there in the bunch with you/And they just don’t come no better than a bear”). Or maybe it’s because Lovett, with a little help from dobro man Jerry Douglas, manages to turn bruin relations into something fraternal, something sorrowful, something that might not be about bears at all.
Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Sleepwalking” becomes a honky-tonk torch song that makes the late-night burn of shattered romance seem more like a privilege than a burden. “Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy,” by David Rodriguez, spreads out over a sparse musical desert, evoking absolute loneliness and only the slivered glint of distant hope. And Dean Parks’ knife-sharp guitar cuts like a siren’s wail through Robert Earl Keen’s “Rollin’ By,” the trucker’s lament that closes Step Inside This House’s first act like a question desperate for an answer (“And me I stand here/At the last filling station/While the wind moans a dirge/To a coyote’s cry/And I’m back in my car/And I’m out on the highway/Goin’ hard/Goin’ fast/Goin’ wild”).
Lovett salutes three menFromholz, the late Townes Van Zandt, and Walter Hyatton Disc 2, in a smattering of tunes that contains the album’s crucial winning move: hiring bluegrass beauty Alison Krauss to sing harmony on a handful of cuts and give a refreshing feminine rebuttal to all this testosterone-fueled moaning. The first two-thirds of Fromholz’s Texas Trilogy, “Daybreak” and “Train Ride,” are merely setups for “Bosque County Romance,” the series finale featuring doomed couple Krauss and Lovett swooning for each other in the shadow of sunset. It’s about as close to a happy ending as you’ll find here. Krauss returns for both Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and the traditional “Texas River Song,” and again fully embodies the chief torment that drove these men to grab pencil and paper and start writing this shit down.
There’s hardly an uninspired moment on Step Inside This HouseMatt Rollings’ tinkling ivories unexpectedly lounging up Hyatt’s “Babes in the Woods” are just a hint at how inventive things can getyet the album is ultimately lacking in one crucial area: Lovett’s own thoughts. Much like Nanci Griffith, who covered her favorite songwriters on the popular Other Voices albums, Lovett is such an imaginative wordsmith (and a vastly underrated singer) that, despite the masterful touch he puts on this slew of hidden classics, he’s truly at his best when looking for inspiration in his own troubled ticker.CP
Wish Lovett a belated happy birthday when he plays the George Mason University Center for the Arts Nov. 2.