Generally, a new Lyle Lovett album is like a welcome visit from an old friend or a new pair of jeans that fit as comfortable as if they'd been worn for a decade. Lovett occupies a place in country music similar to the one Randy Newman inhabits in pop: a wry observer of the foibles of the common man who uses humor and sentimentality — both subtle and broad — to make his points. On Natural Forces, Lovett follows that well-traveled path while making a slight return to 1998's Step Inside This House, populating the album with covers of his favorite Texas songwriters. Lovett's originals run the gamut — from the gently powerful title track to the lowbrow nudge-wink of "Farmer Brown" ("Gonna choke my chicken 'til the sun goes down ...") to the obvious dinner-as-sex metaphor of "Pantry." Then — typical of Lovett's best work — he turns on a dime, describing heartbreak in the most eloquent fashion on "Empty Blue Shoes."
Lovett is equally commanding when interpreting other songwriters, particularly his Texas bretheren, shown by his aching take on Eric Taylor's "Whooping Crane," his jazzy, rootsy spin on Tommy Elskes' "Bohemia" and his perfect stroll through "Loretta," a barroom ode to love by the late Townes Van Zandt, the patron saint of Lone Star troubadours. Lovett goes out with a bang (the bonus acoustic version of "Pantry" notwithstanding) on "It's Rock and Roll," a swinging, sinewy roots-rocker co-penned with his former Texas A&M roommate Robert Earl Keen, capping Natural Forces with the engagingly offhand brilliance that has defined Lovett's catalog for more than two decades. — Brian Baker