It’s been a decade since the last time Lyle Lovett released a new album, but he has his reasons. Sure, there was the fulfillment of his contract with his previous record label that allowed him a chance to survey the land and figure out what he wanted to do next. Yes, there was also that thorniest of problems for all musicians these last years: the pandemic. But the most significant reason as to why it’s been a while is a two-fold issue.
“It’s been a revelation to me, everything that goes into having children,” Lovett said over the phone on a late April afternoon. “I feel so grateful to experience it at this point in my life.” The demanding yelps of one of his twin children echoed in the background on the line as if in harmony with his words. Lovett and his wife April welcomed their twins into the world in 2017, and that event alone was responsible for the longest delay between albums. The pandemic, of course, didn’t help. There was the health and safety of grandparents to consider beyond just the general well-being of the toddlers and parents, so despite an original intention for the album to see the light of day in 2020, it was put on hold. Lovett and family holed up in Texas and did their best to ride out the storm.
“I’ve been especially grateful for getting to spend every moment of those two years with them,” Lovett reflected on the enforced time at home, something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The demands of touring to support the new album would’ve doubtlessly pulled him away for some time. It’s getting ready to do so later this year when he and his Large Band hit the road from mid-June until the end of August in support of the new album, 12th of June. But time counts with children. Time matters. Even people who have kids in their 20s, 30s and 40s wrangle with the question of mortality, with the wonder of how much of their children’s lives they’ll bear witness to. For Lovett, who turned 64 last fall, it would be assumed to be an even more pressing thought. “I didn’t think of my age as something that was relevant until I became a father,” he said after being asked about that perennial parental question. “More than anything else, when I’m gone, I want my kids to know that their dad loved them.”
That fact is assuredly spelled out by the title track of the new album. “I wrote that around their first birthday, a reflection on how it felt,” Lovett said. And the unmistakable voice of Lovett delivers the tender paean to his family almost as if he’s about to actually depart the world. “By the branch at San Jacinto / play for me a happy tune / know of all the days I loved / I loved best the 12th of June,” Lovett sings, a reference to the family land where he still resides and generations prior are buried, while naming what is undoubtedly meant to be the birthdate of his children. “And to those beautiful two children / and to my sweet and tender wife / I will love you three forever / though I fly beyond this life.” It reads as a companion to Lovett’s “Family Reserve” from his 1992 album Joshua Judges Ruth, a song where Lovett lists a number of family and friends and how they passed, acknowledging the ones departed as still being nearby.
12th of June is an album that works as both an introduction as much as it does to catch up on the ten years passed. “I wanted this to be a proper introduction to me and the Large Band if people haven’t heard us, or just something that feels familiar to people that do,” he said. The opening half of the album functions like a lot of Large Band shows do – an opening instrumental, a high-energy Lovett original, and a number of covers that transcend the great American songbook. With this album, the legendary hard bop jazz musician Horace Silver’s “Cookin’ at the Continental” opens the show before rolling into that original song, lead single “Pants is Overrated.” The cheeky ode (no pun intended) to ditching those pesky pants seems like a song that must have emerged from the work-from-home era, but Lovett says otherwise. “I don’t want to make it sound like I cause things to happen,” he joked, “but that song was written before the pandemic. It was about my kids. Seeing them run around with no pants on, it’s like, who needs them?”
After that, Lovett and company reel off a trio of songs that serve as a showpiece for long-time Large Band member Francine Reed who has contributed to Lovett albums dating all the way back to his 1986 debut, but who also just recently retired from the Large Band and will not be part of their forthcoming tour. “‘Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You’ and ‘Peel Me a Grape’ I’ve sung for the last couple of tours with Francine [Reed], so we wanted to record those,” Lovett said, and it’s obvious why. Those, along with a rambunctiously cool run through of Nat King Cole and Irving Mills’s classic “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” make this opening half of the album a superb joy. “I think about every detail, every component of these records,” Lovett answered when asked about the different halves of 12th of June that seem to exist. “One of my hopes is that someone could put this on at a cocktail party and have it just go by kind of in the background. I hope it holds up to deeper introspection, too, but that’s a thought I had in mind.”
The diversity of compositions that dot the landscape of a Lyle Lovett album have forever been one of his calling cards. “I’ve been lucky to have a free hand for most of my career in song selection,” he said. “I’ve always been able to choose what I wanted for albums.” Lovett has in some ways reached a point in his career where his obvious appreciation for the breadth and depth of American music is something he can put front and center. So when songs like the twin odes to wife and family – “Her Loving Man” and “12th of June” – and the tribute to the other white meat in “Pig Meat Man” (which really is just about a love for all things pork), and the somewhat woozy and theatrical “Are We Dancing” come sailing through the second half of the album, they are just as much at home as the four covers are in the first.
Going back to 1987’s Pontiac, Lovett’s album art has had a particular aesthetic – black and white, mostly simple fonts – and that’s been largely due to his longtime work with photographer Michael Wilson and designer Tim Stedman. When Lovett said that he thinks about every component of these records, he isn’t exaggerating. And one can’t help but wonder, when you look at the cover of 12th of June which seems at first to be yet another stark Lovett album cover, if the subtle hints of color in the cover art aren’t an indicator of what these last years especially have meant to him. There’s a long list of people in the liner notes who the album is in memory of – from producer Phil Ramone to guitarist Dusty Hill, to a litany of fellow troubadours like Guy Clark, Eric Taylor, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and Nanci Griffith. But also tucked away is a small note saying that the album is for Lovett’s children. To the past and to the future, all gathered around, 12th of June pulls up a chair for you to join in the laughter, the love, and the celebration. | j neas