Alt-country singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett gives over half of his new album, Natural Forces, to other writers, and while he has eclectic, carefully cultivated taste, it’s still a little disappointing to shift from the excellent opening four Lovett originals to a range of covers that are decidedly more subdued. Forces opens with the beautiful title track, an evocative open-range ballad on which Lovett proclaims, “Home is where my horse is” and makes it entirely believable. That’s followed by the lively, wry “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel,” swing-y hoedown “Pantry” (reprised in an equally delightful bluegrassy version at the end of the album) and plaintive country weeper “Empty Blue Shoes.”
From there, Lovett goes on to tackle songs by writers including Townes Van Zandt, Eric Taylor, Vince Bell and David Ball, many of whom he also covered on his 1998 album Step Inside This House. They’re tastefully presented, and Lovett’s voice brings personality to the words of others, but the passion and verve that imbues Lovett’s best work is often missing from these songs. His integration of jazz and blues influences is also muted on the cover songs, making Forces seem a little too timid. Mostly, it’s just bittersweet to have an album from a great American songwriter on which he’s holding back his talents.