Has the Well Run Dry?

Lyle Lovett, My Baby Don’t Tolerate

New work from Lyle Lovett — he of big hair, golden voice, and cartoonishly ugly face — used to be a cause for celebration for me. From this point on, though, I’m going to approach him skeptically; he only wants my money, and while I’ve freely given it to him in the past, he’s going to have to work for it now.

Lovett has never been terribly prolific. After an initial burst of recordings — four albums from 1986 to 1992 — his output of new, original songs slowed to a crawl. We got The Road to Ensenada in 1996 and this week we were given My Baby Don’t Tolerate.

Yet between 1992’s Joshua Judges Ruth and the new record, Lovett has plugged the long gaps with plenty of product, of widely varying quality: I Love Everybody (1994), a collection of songs written before his debut; Step Inside This House (1998), a two-disc set of covers; Live in Texas (1999), a greatest-hits live album; the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Dr. T. and the Women (2000); Anthology Volume 1: Cowboy Man (2001), a collection of primarily country work; and Smile (2003), which gathers contributions to soundtracks. If you’re keeping score at home, that amounts to six proper albums and an equal number of toss-offs.

I’m being unfair, because Step Inside This House was clearly labored over, a loving tribute to his songwriting influences that features some beautiful tracks, and I Love Everybody still amounted to fresh (if not particularly strong) Lyle songs. Yet I think most Lovett fans would exclude them from the Sacred Texts of Lyle.

It’s okay that Lovett has been slow with new material. After all, he was trampled by a bull in 2002, and he had that whole Julia Roberts thing between Joshua Judges Ruth and The Road to Ensenada. Beyond that, it’s his life, and he can do with it what he wants.

What’s troubling is that Lovett’s release behavior seems increasingly contemptuous of fans. His approach to putting out material suggests that he’s no different than some of-the-moment pop act, desperate to keep the name out there lest people forget. He promotes the hell out of his albums — if he hasn’t been on your favorite talk show selling My Baby Don’t Tolerate, wait a week — as if sales are all he cares about. I used to think he was just a good soldier for his label, but I’m starting to have my doubts.

We probably should have seen this coming. Lovett has never been particularly kind to his women characters in song — they’re almost always objects of affection or desire, rarely human beings — and there’s always been something haughty about him, above the rest of us. He sings the first single and from the guest chair delivers dry one-liners with a straight face, but it seems mildly irritating to him; he acts as if he’s doing us all a favor, gracing us with his presence. One might read into this that he’s not a very nice person — which is his right, so long as it doesn’t sour the music.

And through The Road to Ensenada, nobody could complain much about what Lovett gave us. You could always count on clever, smart lyrics, rich, perfectly realized arrangements that transcend genre, a good dose of humor, and a stylistic breadth running from straight-ahead country to lounge jazz to gospel to mournful ballads.

But the recent output should have given pause. For Cowboy Man, Lovett recorded two new tracks, “The Truck Song” and “San Antonio Girl.” Trouble was, they were virtually the same song.

That was bad enough, but then they pop up again on My Baby Don’t Tolerate, meaning that people who bought Cowboy Man for the new stuff got suckered.

Of course, to this point, I haven’t actually said anything about My Baby Don’t Tolerate. The album is perfectly fine — second-rate Lyle Lovett, which is generally many times more enjoyable than just about anything else out there.

But it seems that Lovett is treading water, to put it generously. Nothing jumps out from the album in the way of “Church” on Joshua Judges Ruth or the hilarious one-two punch of “Don’t Touch My Hat” and “Her First Mistake” from The Road to Ensenada. And over the music to just about any song on My Baby Don’t Tolerate you can sing the lyrics to another Lovett song, as if he’s run out of templates. Slow down “Don’t Touch My Hat” and you’ve got the ironically titled “Working Too Hard,” to cite one example. Nearly every track is formulaic and bright, with “Wallisville Road” and “Election Day” the only songs to distinguish themselves.

Lovett’s albums have generally been stylistically diverse but they’ve felt cohesive; they cover a lot of musical and emotional territory, but they’re anchored by their darker songs. The Road to Ensenada feels a bit gloomy because of the spare mid-album “Promises” and the funereal but hopeful title-track closer, while Joshua Judges Ruth, despite opening and closing cheerfully, carries the weight and loss of “Baltimore” and “Family Reserve.” This darkness has given Lovett’s work heft. Here, though, only “You Were Always There” comes close to those tracks.

Like Chris Isaak, Lovett is always a superior stylist and arranger, and it’s impossible not to enjoy just about anything he does. But at their best, both can also break your heart. With My Baby Don’t Tolerate, Lovett is merely pretty good, and not interested in anything beyond good-time music. Too bad.

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