Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"In My Own Mind" / Lyle Lovett


The third sign that it was time for a Texas Music Week:  Someone at Friday night's Nick Lowe show handed out copies of this month's Elmore music magazine, and right there on the cover, darting a wary smile my way, was none other than Lyle Lovett, of Klein, Texas -- rancher, part-time bullrider, and fulltime Texas troubador.  If you think Doug Sahm had a wide range of musical styles, check out Lyle, who's been known to alternate gospel, acoustic folk, roots rock, Western swing, Nashville twang, Memphis R&B, and big band songbook all on the same album.  

Now I have to 'fess up to a huge fangirl crush on Lyle.  I know some people don't get this -- they make fun of his weird hair and oddly craggy face, or are perplexed by his subdued, almost courtly stage persona. How could anybody have a fangirl crush on that?  Well, I do. I don't go for country singers normally, but then Lyle's not really a country singer; he's been at odds with the Nashville establishment from the get-go.  There's just something about his voice that makes me swoon, that blend of honey and grit, with a true poet's knack for phrasing and nuance. And he's got that air of a wounded romantic that always steals my heart -- the guarded smile, the hurt eyes -- behind his droll humor and suffer-no-fools satire you just know he's a gentle soul longing for love.

Whether or not this bears any relation to the real Lyle Lovett doesn't matter, of course.  I've got my records, and that's all I need. (Check here for previous posts on "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" and "Nobody Knows Me".)  Since this is Texas Music Week, let's go for one of Lyle's twangier numbers.

I love the surreal charm of this video.  Sure, the song comes across as a laidback country two-step, but when you think about it, it's really a treatise on perception and objective reality.  So why not have him morph from one scene to another?  I do love Lyle's deadpan performance (it's no surprise he's had a sideline as an actor), that dreamlike way he sails through it all unfazed, suit and tie neatly pressed.  (I could watch this man ride a horse all day.)

And of course, it's also a country man's statement of faith in wide open spaces and good clean air. "Out here in my own mind / I live where I can breathe / Ain't nothin but a cool breeze / Nobody that it won't please."  The trees, the river, the tall grass, the cows, the horse, the faded barn -- it's where he belongs. The song's language is equally spare and simple, with short lines, often unrhymed, stating one simple detail after another.  The melody, too, is fluid and unfussy -- note how the verses repeat one light scrap of melody over and over, while the chorus just expands that melodic phrase, letting it roam farther up and down the scale, giving it room to breathe. 

Classic songwriting structure: Each verse progressively develops the idea.  Verse One savors his peaceful solitary morning, doing his chores, standing on the porch looking out over his fields. (Love that laconic description of the year's cycle: "I turn it all over / Plow it all under / I plant 'em in the springtime / Pick 'em in the summer.")  Verse Two widens his circle to greet the two ranch hands, comic sidekicks in their slogan T-shirts -- though notice they aren't even there at the moment, but off hunting or fishing.  That's the thing about perception -- you can move through all the seasons in the blink of an eye, or visualize people who exist somewhere else.  We don't even know we're doing it.

He's taking his time, but at last in Verse Three he gets to the romantic heart of it:  Finding his sweetheart in the kitchen, cooking breakfast.  (He's already made the coffee, of course.) Look at how vivid this scene is: "Hardwood floor creakin' / Bedroom door squeakin'" -- we're moving through the the old house with him, hunting for her.  And then his surprise when he finds her: "She's standing in the kitchen / I thought she was still sleepin'" -- another psychological flicker, comparing his expectation to reality.  And then there's this wonderfully tender domestic exchange: "Kiss her on the forehead / Asked her how she slept / She says, 'honey it's so early, / We probably shouldn't speak yet'." What a beautiful, understated moment, and how much it tells us about their relaxed relationship.

Easygoing as this song is -- I love that tempo, like the clop of hoofbeats -- there's always a tinge of melancholy in a Lyle Lovett song.  It's a lovely pastoral scene, but he's still aware of his separateness. The ranch hands show up when they show up; his wife might sleep late or not; even the crops follow nature's laws, not his.  He's just there, gliding through it, observing.  And the spare lyrics, the lonely croon of his voice, speak to me of shyness, brooding, a haunted quality that resonates throughout the song.

It's a breathtaking, soul-shivering effect, really, and Lyle Lovett pulls it off with effortless grace. The ancient poets knew about this, the lacrymae rerum -- the "tears of things," the fundamental sorrow of our earthly existence.  But damn, who expects to find this in a country song?


wwolfe said...

This is a wonderful song, for exactly the reasons you enumerate. I have the "I Love Everybody" album, because I saw Lyle perform "Creeps Like Me," probably the best song from it, on an episode of "Austin City Limits" where he and two or three other songwriters took turns singing their work. I'm going to download this one - it's a winner.

Holly A Hughes said...

It's an inexhaustible well of great music. I love artists like this, who only get better the more obscure the tracks are.

If I were Lyle, I'd be flummoxed by the fact that more people aren't Lyle Lovett fans. Life's just not fair!