I’m not really sure who decided to call this album “Pontiac,” because the title song is my least favorite on the record. It’s not Lovett’s best song by a long shot, which fortunately, with a songwriter of his caliber, is a bit like saying The Virgin and Child With St. Anne isn’t your favorite Da Vinci. Lovett is such a talented songwriter and such an omnivorous musician that I can certainly forgive him a misstep here and there.
As a songwriter, Lovett is adept at taking on other voices. It’s a tricky thing to do–sometimes listeners don’t pick up on the difference between who wrote the song and the character singing it, and sometimes it can be difficult to believe a singer as a different character. But with Lovett’s songs, this kind of complexity goes down easy.
Perhaps the finest example of that on this album is “L.A. County.” This up-tempo instrumentation can lull you into a false emotional register if you’re not careful, because this song is actually really dark: a man shoots down his ex-girlfriend and his best friend at the altar. It’s sung in the first person, but the audience is obviously not supposed to believe that Lovett himself did this. Instead, he merely assumes the character’s voice, and sketches in the song’s narrative carefully by establishing parallel movement in the song’s first two verses:
“She left Dallas for California/With an old friend at her side/Well he did not say much/But one year later/He’d ask her to be his bride”
The second verse is almost the same:
“One year later I left Houston/With an old friend at my side/Well it did not say much/But it was a beauty/Of a coal black .45”
The content of the second verse is so powerful precisely because it mirrors the first one so closely. It’s both a variation on a verbal leitmotif and a fine example of the writer’s mandate to show and not tell.
I think it’s because his songs are so structured that allows him to manipulate the variations in his verses to such effect. “If I Had A Boat,” for example, thrives on variations on the prompt “If I…” They start the beginning of almost every verse and the chorus, and give structure to what would otherwise be a somewhat rambling, discursive affair.
Consider too the second chorus of “I Loved You Yesterday,” where Lovett sticks in some badly-pronounced Spanish in place of the chorus’ English lyrics: “I loved you yesterday/And I love you just the same” becomes “Yo te quise ayer/And yo te quiero the same.” It’s laughable out of context, but in the midst of the singer’s heartbroken melancholy, the change provides just enough interest to keep the listener focused on the character’s plight.
The record splits nicely between relatively straight ahead country on the first half of the album and a more eclectic Western swing sound starting with track six, “She’s No Lady.” It’s not often that you get an album with steel guitar and saxophone in equal parts, but it’s de rigueur on a Lyle Lovett record. Unlike a lot of similar Texas-based singer-songwriters (cf. Guy Clark’s first album), Lovett doesn’t seem to be afraid to indulge in full and varied arrangements to set off his lyrics, and he allows his players to shine just as much as his lyrics. The cantina-flavored guitar on “I Loved You Yesterday” as well as the pedal steel part on “L.A County” deserve special mention, but so does the fiery saxophone solo on “M-O-N-E-Y,” and the piano on “Black & Blue.”
Like Da Vinci, or any master of their craft, Lovett’s albums demand the listener’s attention. The songs have a surface level of appeal to them, but listening critically, peeling back the top layer and looking at the framework, is where the artist’s technique is most evident.