Sly, subtle Lovett not for everybody

September 27, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

If nothing else, Lyle Lovett's "I Love Everybody" (MCA 10808, arriving in stores today) ought to convince folks once and for all that marrying Julia Roberts was not a career move on his part.

It isn't just that the album makes no allusions to his movie star spouse in any of its 18 songs (though she is listed as singing backup on two tunes). No, what will ultimately keep "I Love Everybody" from capitalizing on his newfound celebrity is that the songs here are too subtle and twisted to find a place in the average person's hit parade.

Don't take that as a knock at Lovett's songwriting skills, though, because it isn't. There aren't many in the business who write as skillfully as he does, weaving deftly turned phrases and carefully observed characters into an insinuatingly tuneful fabric. As such, the album's best songs offer impressive rewards to anyone willing to listen.

Listening, though, is the key, because Lovett's sense of style is too sly and subtle to afford much space for big hooks or obvious lyrics.

Even when the title of the tune seems to telegraph the punch line, Lovett's delivery is so relentlessly low-key that even his seemingly blunt-edged gags end up arriving swaddled in layers of satiric ambiguity -- as in "Creeps Like Me," in which the imperturbable protagonist blithely blurs the boundaries between cruelty and charm.

Compounding things is the fact that, compared with his last couple of albums, "I Love Everybody" seems to have been recorded at a whisper. Most songs emphasize his voice and acoustic guitar, often rounding out the arrangements with little more than bass and drums.

Apart from "Penguins" (with its wryly funny refrain, "Penguins are so sensitive [pause] to my needs"), there's little of the brassy bounce of his Large Band albums, and only the R&B novelty number "Record Lady" resorts to the quartet harmonies he used so effectively on "Joshua Judges Ruth."

Moreover, when Lovett does resort to some sort of large-ensemble arrangement, the extra voices are invariably offered as some form of subterfuge. If all you hear is the hook, "Fat Babies" sounds sort of like a hymn to the underdog, thanks to all the extra voices (including Roberts') on the bittersweet "Fat babies have no pride/But that's OK, who needs pride?" chorus.

Listen closely to the verse, however, and a different picture emerges, as Lovett croons "Fat babies make me sick, fat babies make me ill/All that fat baby drooling, and that fat baby smell." Thank you, Mr. Sensitive.

But Lovett really loves playing the cad on this album -- and frankly, he's a scream in the role. "They Don't Like Me" is a terrifically funny take on the smily-faced enmity that often exists between young men and prospective in-laws. "Sonja" goes from telling of how the protagonist tried to impress a waitress by writing a song for her, and ends up with him bitterly singing, "Now she's gone forever, and I'm stuck with this song that I never will use."

By the time you hear the title tune, with its patently insincere "I love everybody/Especially you" sing-along, either you're rolling on the floor or you're wondering just what this guy's problem is. There's no middle ground, and frankly, that's not the best way for Lovett to win fans and influence listeners.

But it's a heck of a lot more interesting.

WITH LOVE, FROM LYLE

To hear excerpts from Lyle Lovett's "I Love Everybody," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6197 after you hear the greeting.

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