How happy is Lyle Lovett to be wrapping up his 26-year tenure with Curb Records? Clues abound, not just in the telling title of his new album, “Release Me,” but the cover art, which has Lovett bound neck-to-ankle in a lariat.
One might also take a hint from the fact that he only wrote two of the album’s 14 tunes, which smacks of a “Contractual Obligation Album” (as Monty Python once titled a record). Then again, Lovett has been releasing more covers albums than not in recent years; since 1996, he’s only put out two collections of primarily original material, making him possibly America's least prolific great songwriter.
You could draw three conclusions: He really does find writing “hard,” as he tells interviewers … or he really does love elevating the work of old bluesmen and fellow Texas songwriters … or he’s been trying to get out of his contract for about 15 years.
In any case, “covers” shouldn’t connote overfamiliarity when we’re dealing with someone with tastes as eclectic as Lovett’s. With the exception of an unnecessary reprise of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (left over from a 2011 holiday EP), nothing here will strike anyone as old hat, even if they’re wearing the battered Stetson of a die-hard roots musicologist.
Little-known Lone Star songsmiths contribute the two most tender keepers: “Understand You,” a lovely declaration that empathy should precede carnality, and “Dress of Laces,” a narrative song about an abandoned daughter that ends in fratricide.
Most of the set leans toward the lighter side. He puts a Texas-swing spin on two blues numbers that date back to the ‘20s and early ‘30s, “Keep It Clean” and “One Way Gal.” The traditional instrumental “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” serves to remind that bluegrass can sound just fine on electrified instruments, in the right hands. Townes Van Zandt’s hectic “White Freightliner Blues” gives almost everyone in his band a lead vocal or solo – and it’s the purest country he’s recorded since 1986.
Lovett’s two originals don’t argue against the idea that he’s being stingy and holding out on the good stuff, although “Night’s Lullaby” lives up to its name as a sweet bedtime ballad. And “The Girl With the Holiday Smile” is almost indisputably the best prostitution-themed holiday song since Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis.”
If the penultimate “White Freightliner’s Blues” is pure Texas two-step material, get ready to take off your boots and kneel for the closing “Keep Us Steadfast,” a reverently rendered hymn by Martin Luther. It’s not surprising that Lovett also has great taste in 16th century songwriters. But we still need him to contribute a whole lot more of his own to the century-21 canon.