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First album in a decade from Austin's Lyle Lovett sparkles with his joys in life and music

Lyle Lovett didn’t really plan to go 10 years between albums — but judging from the songs he wrote for “12th of June,” his first record since 2012’s “Release Me,” the long break seems to have treated him well.

In some respects, he’s right in step with who he’s always been. It’s not like he’d been idle for the past decade: Except for a couple of pandemic years, Lovett stayed plenty busy on the road with his Large Band. They play a fittingly large role on the new album, which came out Friday on Verve Records. Indeed, the opening track, “Cookin’ at the Continental,” is an upbeat 1950s instrumental by jazz great Horace Silver that the band frequently plays to start Lovett’s concerts.

Singer Francine Reed, who’s toured with Lovett since the 1980s, features prominently on tracks three through five, a string of 20th-century pop-jazz standards (“Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and “Peel Me a Grape”) often included in the Large Band’s live sets. They’d even recorded “Straighten Up” once before, for the soundtrack of the 1996 Garry Marshall film “Dear God.” 

Lyle Lovett's new record, "12th of June," is his first album in a decade.

The other seven tracks are new Lovett originals, and they shed light on the joy he’s found in his autumn years. Lovett was 59 when he and his wife, April Kimble, became parents of twins on June 12, 2017. (Thus the album title.) They still live part-time on the ranch near Houston that’s been in his family since the 1800s — but now they also have a place in Austin, which helped give rise to Lovett’s career when he played venues such as Emmajoe’s and Cactus Cafe in the early to mid-1980s.

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It’s the title track that speaks so directly to Lovett’s state of mind at age 64. The band holds back, with gentle strokes of piano and violin coloring an acoustic arrangement that emphasizes the words. The key verse: “All I have I gladly give them, all I am they will exceed,” he sings. “And one thing I know for sure is they improve the likes of me.”

In the hands of a lesser artist, the song could have been overly sentimental. But Lovett guards against that, acknowledging the inevitable impermanence of his bliss. “To these beautiful two children, and to my sweet and tender wife,” he promises, “I will love you three forever, though I fly beyond this life.”

For timeless beauty and grace, “12th of June” is matched only by “Are We Dancing,” two and a half minutes of sublime simplicity set to piano and a string quartet. With lyrics about “moving to the sound of sweet romances,” it could be a classic love song, and it’s likely to turn up on a lot of wedding playlists in the years to come. But look closer: “Oh the world is just beginning,” he sings; “when I hold you, it starts spinning.” It could well be a song for his children, too.

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If those tunes are the soul of the album, Lovett also serves up some of the left-field humor that has long been central to his identity. Witness “Pants Is Overrated,” which takes note that kilt-wearing Scots and desert-wandering Jesus got by just fine sans trousers. Ironically, the song was written before the pandemic — primary sessions for the album were completed in Nashville in November 2019 — but the timing is perfect, now that we’ve all learned firsthand how much pants is overrated.

And then there’s “Pig Meat Man,” a bluesy paean to ham and bacon that recalls Lovett singing about beans and cornbread in “Church,” a song from 1992’s “Joshua Judges Ruth” that’s a Large Band showcase at his concerts. Tongue is firmly in cheek when he sings, “Nashville chicken, I’m just warning/Won’t still love you in the morning.”

Co-produced by longtime Mark Knopfler studio ace Chuck Ainlay, who first worked with Lovett as an engineer and mixer on 1989’s “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band,” the album has an exquisitely pristine sound that underscores Lovett’s careful attention to the smallest sonic details. The arrangements always serve the songs, right up to the jazzy, jaunty six-minute finale “On a Winter’s Morning,” which revels in the simple magic of being alive.

“The sun is rising in the window’s glass,” he sings, “and I thank the good Lord for the view I have.” One day, all of this will fade. But for now, Lovett is basking in a moment he knows will never come again. And when it’s over, as he tells us in the title track, there's one thing he wants us to remember: “Know of all the days I loved, I loved best the 12th of June.”