When I wrapped up my recent Lyle Lovett theme weeks, I held out hope that he would break out of the slump he’d been in for the past dozen years or so. His last album, It’s Not Big It’s Large, was a step in the right direction — a bit slight, but featuring stronger material than he’d released in years. I figured his next turn at bat would be major.
I was wrong.
Natural Forces is another stop-gap Lyle Lovett album, enjoyable enough for what it is but a shadow of the man’s best work. It contains only four original songs and most of those aren’t even as good as the covers that make up the rest of the album. It’s a pleasure, as always, to hear Lovett and his peerless band perform but it’s a fleeting pleasure when what you really want is the next Road to Ensenada or Joshua Judges Ruth.
The album begins well. The title track, written by Lovett, is a country and western epic accented with a foreboding fiddle. “I’m subject to the natural forces,” Lovett sings… “Home is where my horse is.” Track two, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel,’ is a traditional Dixie romp that’s enjoyable enough but for the repeated phrase “I’m gonna choke my chicken,” which makes it difficult to listen to in mixed company. ‘Pantry,’ another Lovett original, is a country jam that stretches a food/infidelity metaphor about as far as it can go. The chorus is too repetitive but it’s a fun song. The third song Lovett penned, ‘Empty Blue Shoes,’ is Lyle-by-numbers, a slow blues number that treads ground he’s wandered over for decades.
That’s basically how I feel about the album as a whole… been there, done that and with much better songs. A few of the covers stand out (most notably ‘Bohemia’ and ‘Loretta’) but it feels weird when my favorite songs on a Lyle Lovett album aren’t written by Lyle Lovett.
I wonder if I’d like the album better had I not known the songwriting credits ahead of time. Would ‘Bohemia’ feel like an even better song if I was under the illusion it was penned by Lovett? I’d love to put that theory to the test somehow because it might say a lot about expectations and fandom. Why hold it against a great songwriter if he performs a great song that isn’t his own? I guess because it feels as though he’s wasting precious time he could be contributing something new to the music world.
So Natural Forces is an enjoyable listen but I suspect it will spend most of its time on the shelf. And I’ll keep listening to my favorites while I wait for the next great Lyle Lovett album.
Natural Forces (Live):