Lyle Lovett: “Release Me”

Yes, the title is a bit of a double entendre. “Release Me” is a classic country song, but it’s also a tip of the hat to the fact that this is the last album of Lyle Lovett’s recording contract– a contract that extends back to the beginning of his nearly three-decade recording career. After this, he’ll be a free agent for the first time in a long time, and the music gathered here makes it seem like he’s giddy at the mere thought. There’s also the cover photo, of the singer hogtied in barbed wire. I never knew Curb treated him so bad, or that he was so eager to break free; in fact, I’ve kind of always assumed they let Lovett get away with making whatever the hell kind of record he wanted to make, which is probably why they’re all so good.

I suspect this whole thing is really very good-natured, and Lovett harbors little resentment. In fact, he’s in particularly jovial form here, sounding livelier and more energized than he has in years. That this album is sort of a clearinghouse of covers and originals, duets and instrumentals, blues and swing numbers and holiday songs, doesn’t detract from what a good time it is. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason why this record is such a good time. Release Me is a mess, but it’s a mighty appealing one. Lovett hasn’t been so loose in a good while.

The two holiday songs here are actually pretty instructive of the album’s spirit. “The Girl with the Holiday Smile” is one of only two originals here, if you can believe it; if there’s any complaint to be found with this record, it’s that Lovett the Songwriter is underrepresented. But this particular song is a really great one– a gleefully randy, cheerfully low-brow story about a Christmas hooker. Why, you’d have to go back to a certain 1970’s Tom Waits classic for a better treatment of this subject; it’s just the kind of song I love coming from Lyle Lovett, too. The other seasonal number is “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which is done here as flirty jazz but not really as a quote-unquote Christmas song. Lovett seems more interested in it for its sturdy craft than for its festive connotations. He approaches it as a keen student of Great American Songs, understanding and illuminating the song’s inherent creepiness but not ratcheting up the sleaze too much.

Hearing a master songwriter perform other people’s work is always instructive, and here he exhibits just how fine his instincts are. He slows down Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” from a rock and roll number into a story-song. It’s soulful and just right. But this isn’t meant to be a studious affair; it’s either a very constructive way of dealing with writer’s block, or a deliberately tossed-off, unfussy termination to his major label contract. Either way, it’s a fun, spirited record with abundant highlights: The brassy single “Isn’t That So” (the only time he really connects with his love of Big Band here), the bluegrass swing of instrumental opener “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” a monstrously savage, piledriving version of “White Freightliner Blues,” a handful of sensitive and emotive ballads, and a celebratory “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” done with such vigor and feeling it’s clear Lovett is claiming it as his own autobiography.

It all ends up, in all places, with a Martin Luther hymn; “Keep Us Steadfast” is performed at the piano, solemn and reverent and without irony. I’m not sure that it makes any sense beyond the simple fact that it’s a song Lovett obviously loves, and that seems to be the only real thread here. But that’s not a complaint. Everything on Release Me connects. It’s more or less everything I could want from a Lovett album, and its unassuming nature makes it, funnily enough, one of the most essential things he’s done.

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