Some music critics have been writing about the role of taste lately, and the career of Lyle Lovett is an example of how a thoughtful musician can create art that excites the emotions, despite his impeccable taste. If you read music criticism, you may know Canadian writer Carl Wilson's 2007 book on singer Céline Dion, Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Wilson's book makes a case for Dion as a technically adept vocalist who also happens to be a human being, but I'd like to make a case for Lovett as a human being who also happens to be a technically adept singer.
Lovett isn't exactly the kind of artist Wilson describes in Let's Talk, though Lovett probably has detractors who find him middlebrow. I think Wilson is saying that singers like Dion exist outside of taste, as if Dion had emerged from a provincial realm ruled by simplistic notions of love, faith and hope. In contrast, Lovett is a sophisticated exponent of country, rock 'n' roll and folk.
I caught up with Lovett to talk about his upcoming Nashville show, which he'll be performing with his 14-piece Large Band. I also asked Lovett about Wilson's book — he hadn't read it, but he did have some interesting things to tell the Scene about the way his taste has shaped his approach to music-making.
"Music is a malleable medium that can take on many forms," Lovett says. "I try to say something in my songs, and try to be thoughtful in my lyrics. Taste is everything, isn't it?"
In Lovett's music, taste is indeed everything — or almost everything. It has to be, since it requires taste to convey songs that seem autobiographical but are really only windows into a sensibility.
A subtle singer who sounds a bit like Jesse Winchester, Lovett examines the world of blues fans on "White Boy Lost in the Blues," a track from Lovett's 2012 full-length Release Me. Listening closely, you hear a narrative about a neophyte who starts "feeling mean and confused" when he contemplates a style he doesn't understand.
Lovett's catalog contains many similar moments — Release Me includes a cover of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," a song that may sound tasteless to modern listeners. Abjuring Berry's guitar licks, Lovett plays the song as a medium-tempo swamp rocker.
"I learned 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' in 1976, and it's a really hard-core song," Lovett says. "To slow it down like that made it possible for me to play it. What Chuck Berry is speaking to, he's so far ahead of his time. For me, my taste just reflects what I like, and songs that speak to me."
Lovett's Berry cover deploys taste across time and space, and describes the ways our perceptions of Berry's reality have changed since Berry recorded the song in 1956. This kind of artistic feat seems beyond Dion's ability, though she could probably sing the tune well enough.
Writing a response to Wilson's book in this year's expanded edition of Let's Talk About Love, novelist Mary Gaitskill takes Wilson to task for his labors in explicating Dion's extra-musical appeal: "I wanted to say, 'Good grief, man, music is about sound; that social-meaning shit is ... basically shit.' " But I don't think Gaitskill's definition applies to Lovett and his Texas-style, Nashville-fried narrative songs and performances.
In Lovett's Berry cover, and in many of his songs — I like Lovett's 2009 rock 'n' roll success narrative, "It's Rock and Roll" — social meaning enhances the music. As Lovett tells me, he and Robert Earl Keen wrote "It's Rock and Roll" about a specific situation.
"We made it up for a theater group when we were in school, in 1979 or '80," says Lovett. "It was during the time when every Saturday night, the local campus theater played The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So we were thinking in that vein."
In Lovett's work, you perceive a man who understands that music is both pure sound and the "social-meaning shit" that Gaitskill decries. Referring to the fictional folk singer portrayed in the Coen Brothers' 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, Lovett makes a case for the convergence of taste, social meaning and, well, reality.
"In anything we consume as viewers and listeners, we're desperate for authenticity," he says. "You want to believe that Llewyn Davis is a real person. You don't want to think he's a contrivance, or that some smart business guy in a smoke-filled room thought up a character, and they're gonna go find somebody to play it."