Lyle Lovett's been-there-and-back voice alternately strokes the lyrics and falls quiet for empty yet pensive spaces, his images tumbling together in a sad and surreal riff on life, death . . . and Baltimore.
"I know I've seen this place before
Lord can't you hear me screaming . . .
And a woman lies upon the bed
I think she must be dying . . .
As she began to cry
She begged son please don't go to Baltimore."
But, why not? Baltimore apparently is a popular place to go to in a song -- especially a real downer of a song, such as this new one by the country punkster.
"Baltimore," featured on Mr. Lovett's just-release "Joshua Judges Ruth" album, is the latest in a series of tuneful appearances by Charm City . . . in less than charming ways.
This is the city, after all, that Bruce Springsteen relegated to his rear-view mirror in "Hungry Heart:" "Got a wife and kid in Baltimore, Jack/Went out for a ride and I never looked back."
And this, of course, is the city whose name Randy Newman took in vain with a song so depressin' he just had to drop all his g's: "Hooker on the corner/Waitin' for a train/Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk/Sleepin' in the rain/And they hide their faces/And they hide their eyes/Because the city's dyin'/And they don't know why/Oh, Baltimore/Man, it's hard just to live."
(Mr. Newman's "Baltimore," in fact, so raised local hackles that poet-comptroller Hyman Pressman was moved to defend his city's honor thusly: "There is no need for us to fret/For we know Randy is all wet/He doesn't seem to know the score/When he downgrades our Baltimore . . . We have a city that is bloomin'/But Randy Newman isn't human.")
Mr. Lovett's take on Baltimore follows in this cheer-less tradition -- the narrator disregards the dying woman's plea to sad results: "Well you know I went to Baltimore/So confident and wise/And as I breathe she breathed no more/And she did surely die."
Where is Mr. Pressman when you need him?
Mr. Lovett could not be reached for an interview about his song, a slow and haunting ballad that seems as full of unexpressed thoughts as vocalized ones.
Mr. Lovett has been rehearsing for upcoming concerts this summer and helping promote the new Robert Altman film, "The Player," in which he makes a cameo appearance, according to Tom Cording, a spokesman for MCA, the record company that produced "Joshua Judges Ruth."
"According to Lyle, he wrote this song about his grandmother. He was about to go on a trip, she didn't want him to go, 'I'm old, I might die before you come back,' " Mr. Cording says, adding speculatively that the trip in question might indeed have been to Baltimore. "Baltimore is just kind of . . . well, he doesn't relate to it scenically or lyrically. He kind of used Baltimore as a metaphor for his grandmother and this trip."
And death, perhaps.
Mr. Lovett went on his trip and his grandmother indeed died, Mr. Cording says. Just like in the song.
Whether "Baltimore" plays in Baltimore remains to be seen. It may not get much airtime on the radio because Mr. Lovett's record label, MCA, isn't releasing it as a single. Another problem is the iconoclastic singer himself, or rather, his inability to be boxed into any one category: He's sorta country, sorta not, sorta a lot of things.
Variety 104 might do something with the song on its morning show, but doesn't really do Lyle Lovett because he's never had a truly big record, says programming director Todd Fisher.
"He has a kind of a cult audience," says Bob Moody, program director for the country station WPOC. "He's one of the unfortunate artists that doesn't fit anywhere. He's so distinctive."
Mr. Moody, a self-described big fan of Mr. Lovett and his trademark "wry, understated humor," says the station won't play the song on a regular basis because it didn't fit the station's format.
"It's really not a country song. It's depressing," Mr. Moody says. "It's really more of a gospel song."
WPOC does play some older Lyle Lovett, he says, such as "Cowboy Man" and "God Will" (with its laconic lyrics, "God will, but I won't . . . God will forgive you, but I won't").
Even the local angle won't help the song much, Mr. Moody believes. "It's not about Baltimore. It could have been called Miami," he says.
WHFS, which has played Mr. Lovett in the past, hasn't yet decided whether to play "Baltimore," says music director Bob Waugh.
"It's a real pretty ballad," Mr. Waugh says, "but it's not something that would fit real well into what we play, although we've played Lyle Lovett before. It's real slow, it's almost him singing a cappella sometimes.
"The point is, should we play it just because it has Baltimore in it. It's pretty much an average song otherwise," Mr. Waugh says. "There are some similarities with Randy Newman's 'Baltimore;' the song is about the same length, the same tempo."