I have enough invested in the idea of perfect artistic finality that occasionally I can drift into the mental parlor game of selecting the best last album for an individual artist. This doesn’t necessarily mean identifying their very best work under the theory that everyone should go out at their absolute peak. Instead, it’s about finding those releases that feel just right as a sort of summation, a proper closing statement of artistic identity and intent. To shift the topic to movies for a useful illustration, Robert Altman probably made at least a dozen movies that I consider plainly better than A Prairie Home Companion, but the film’s celebration of the messiness of collaborative creativity coupled with a a creeping but playful sense of looming mortality makes it ideal as the great director’s final cinematic bow. It’s not often that the brutality of time and the preoccupations of an artist converge so neatly. More often, my little exercise involves sorting through older works to find the one that would have been best to use an accompaniment to extinguishing the spotlight.
Almost from the moment I first heard it, I was convinced Step Inside This House made an ideal final album for Lyle Lovett. The Texas singer-songwriter, steeped in country music but ultimately too authentic to thrive in the genre as it was increasingly transformed into a glittery, Vegas-style echo of its former self, had a series of terrific albums through the nineteen-eighties and into the nineties. Towards the end of the latter decade, Lovett released a double CD collection exclusively made up of cover versions. As opposed to most cover albums that include a hearty dosage of familiar songs, all the better to reel in different fans, the material on Step Inside This House was fairly obscure, especially to a wider audience. Lovett looked to the songwriters who’d had the greatest influence on him, filling the album with numbers penned by the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Michael Martin Murphey, Townes Van Zandt, and, providing the title cut, Guy Clark. Beautifully rendered and produced, the entirety of Step Inside This House is tribute, to be sure. More crucially, it’s as clear and strong an example of self-expression as I can imagine coming from a songwriter who is deliberately not performing his own songs. Every heartfelt bit of the album is Lovett essentially saying, “This is who I am.”
It wasn’t Lovett’s last album, although for several years it seemed like it might have been. It took five years before his next studio release, and subsequent efforts arrived with no rush. Though I bought every last Lovett album that proceeded Step Inside This House, my collection has stopped there. I’ve heard bit and pieces of the others. They’re fine, but I can’t get past my own prejudice against them, making them come across as afterthoughts. My CD shelf preserves the fantasy that Step Inside This House represented Lovett saying all that he ever needed to say.
Listen or download –> Lyle Lovett, “Step Inside This House”
(Disclaimer: I feel like I’ve gone down this road before, thinking that certain Lovett releases were out of print only to discover that my notoriously lackadaisical and faulty research methods have set me on the wrong path. Still, as I look at it right now, it appears that a number of Lovett releases are no longer available as physical objects that can purchased at your favorite local, independently-owned record store, enough of them in fact that I’m resisting the urge to rattle off about four straight weeks of Lovett tracks as “One for Friday” entries. Regardless of my belief that posting the song here causes no undue harm to the revenue streams of deserving souls, I still recognize that under current copyright law I have no inherent right to this sort of fair use sharing. Therefore, should any individual or entity with due authority to request its removal make such a request, I will gladly and promptly comply.)