Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Boats: If I Had A Boat

Lyle Lovett: If I Had A Boat (live, 2003)

[purchase original]

If Lyle Lovett had a boat, he'd go out on the ocean. And if he had a pony, he'd ride it on his boat.


This "what if" song contains a few digs at the idea of freedom, it's true. But primarily, it is a simple ditty, a flight of fancy in which Lyle Lovett imagines himself in a holy host of heoric situations right out of the black-and-white world of fifties television serials, and perfectly suited to an artist whose catalog features a long stretch of greyscale, formal-dress album covers.

Who is this man who imagines so wildly, and what he is trying to escape, we cannot consider, for the idea of riding a pony on a boat is just so ridiculous, it's impossible to listen to this song and do anything more than smile. The lyrical inanity allows the song to be sly, but only transparently so, as in a child's voice. It corrupts and interrupts what might otherwise be concern for the narrator's deeper emotion; the fourth wall is broken.

If it weren't for Lyle Lovett's tendency to "go deep" only when tackling country song subjects like love and hard luck, given the way this words play out as music, it would be tempting to suggest that we are being asked to look through the words to the man underneath after all. But the lyrical hiccup of logic leaves us no choice: in the end, the point of this song can only be to ridicule, in Lovett's inimitably, deceivably harmless manner, the very nature of the exercise of "what if". Meanwhile, Lyle smiles right back, as his emotional character is consumed, wholesale, by his words.

Afterthought, with bonus tracks:

This 2003 version I've posted here, which was originally recorded and broadcast on Seattle radio and subsequently sold as part of a radio station compilation through Starbucks, is pretty true to the original 1987 recording off Pontiac, minus the slide guitar: slow, with a touch of weariness.

Elsewhere, the phenomenon I describe above is even more evident. For example, there's nothing even slightly so deep about the version from Lovett's 1999 album Live in Texas, where the smooth orchestral backdrop soothe even the earlier hint of narrative subtext.

The same thing happens in the hands of others, too. Folk group Eddie From Ohio offer a dubious origin story for the song's lyric, and a fun cover, sunny and just slightly wistful. And folk/gospel/bluesmen The Holmes Brothers take it even farther in the same lighthearted direction, delivering their cover in a jangly acoustic folkblues; though their breathless delivery and old-man rasped voices give their narrator an urgency of age and wisdom, it cannot give him any more questionable a history as a dreamer, nor any more bothersome reason to dream, than Lyle Lovett himself.

Lyle Lovett: If I Had A Boat (live, 1999)

Eddie From Ohio: If I Had A Boat [purchase]

The Holmes Brothers: If I Had A Boat [purchase]


Anonymous said...

This is the song that was in my head when I picked this theme.

I think the pony is a charming addition to the song. The point, I think, is to show in a nice way that the guy's dreams probably aren't ever going to come true. You might as well stick a horse on the boat if the whole thing's a pipe dream anyway.

Great line: "I couldn't bring myself to marrying no Dale."

Other great line: "Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I'm going out to sea"

I also think Lyle is Tonto. Stuck "doing the dirty work for free." But dreaming of getting up on the masked man's pony out on a boat far away from his current predicament.

boyhowdy said...

I'm okay if you want to replace my entire entry with the phrase "You might as well stick a horse on the boat if the whole thing's a pipe dream anyway." That's it in a nutshell. Nice turn of phrase, Paul.

I am pretty proud of my ability to find a picture of a horse on a houseboat, though.

Anonymous said...

I was going to ask you about that picture. If that was not created expressly for this song, then you are a god of the google image search!

Divinyl said...

I love this song...and had it on my 'potential one's to write about' list...Boyhowdy I bow to your speed and superior literary skills!