Stephen Lynch established himself as more than just “a guitar guy” from the start. On his 2000 debut album, A Little Bit Special, he wasn’t writing parodies, and he could sing. Well enough, it turns out, to make it to Broadway and earn a Tony nomination for the lead role in The Wedding Singer. With his new double album, Lion, he offers both studio and live versions of 13 tracks and takes the musical side of musical comedy a step further, making it an equal partner with the comedy. Fans of Americana and acoustic musical could listen to the studio half of Lion and hear a delicate, finely produced album. That is, if they could ignore the lyrics about Juggalos, queer tattoos and a monumental case of whiskey dick.
Lynch has always reveled in that contrast between sweet music and scatological content. That’s still the case, but there are songs on Lion that are so enchanting it would be easy to lose the words. Frequently funny songs are arranged and/or mixed to keep the music from distracting from the joke. But Lynch also isn’t afraid to write a beautiful number like “Lorelei,” one that wouldn’t sound out of place next to Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch singing “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Credit some of Lynch’s cohorts for helping create a lush musical backdrop. Courtney Jaye sings backup and the occasional duet, and her voice is gorgeous on “The Night I Laid You Down,” a musical argument over what song was playing the first time a couple made love. It’s pretty and playful, and in the post-song banter, there’s a clear feeling of “What the hell am I doing here?” in Jaye’s voice. Lynch seems to relish making her swear or sing something off-color, contrasting with the purity of her voice. It’s especially effective on the live disc. Lynch also worked with producer Doug Lancio, who has collaborated with Patty Griffin, Steve Earle and John Hiatt.
There are some moments where the humor would count as subtle, at least in the context of Lynch’s previous work. Though “Let Me Inside” plays against more crude expectations, there are still plenty of gross-out, juvenile moments, the comic equivalent of lobbing spitballs. Often the jokes contain few moving parts; the first verse is the setup and the punchline, and the rest of the song functions as tags. “Tennessee” is a predictable broadside against meth-cooking hillbillies, while “Lorelei” is a litany of women the narrator has been with, plus their deficiencies. (Mary Claire’s is especially disturbing.)
The live disc sparkles musically as well, proving the smooth sound isn’t just studio trickery. Lynch, Jaye and a few backing musicians change the arrangements slightly from the studio versions. (The delay effect on the background vocals in “Outer Space” is more pronounced live, making it even more trippy.) And of course the whole enterprise is helped by the between-song patter. Rarely has something so beautiful been so apt to also make you giggle like an idiot.