There are times when Lyle Lovett reminds you of stinkeroo boyfriends you've either known or heard about the honest kind who make it known they probably won't be around past Sunday, then unleash their irresistible charms. One of those guys could have sung Lovett's version of ''Stand By Your Man'' (off his last album, 1989's Lyle Lovett and His Large Band): He's happy to acknowledge the pain he might cause, but he can't help himself. Sometimes it's hard to be a woman, but hey, that's not his job.
Lovett hasn't exactly reformed, thank God, on Joshua Judges Ruth, but he's gotten even better at telling the lothario's side of the story. At times, Large Band might have made you wonder if Lovett could be trusted alone in a room with the country tradition; songs like ''I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You'' smirked a little too broadly, making his irreverence seem a little meanspirited.
But if Lovett is too urbane to ever lay his soul bare-naked in public, now he's less concerned than ever with his own hipness. Large Band's punchy horn arrangements made it a blast to listen to, but they also made the album feel like a campy floor show; Joshua Judges Ruth is far more understated. Lovett's acoustic guitar and longtime associate Matt Rollings' piano provide the predominant colors, and the spare surroundings set off Lovett's bourbon-and- butter-cream voice, not to mention his idiosyncratic songwriting.
That writing shines in the unorthodox (and totally winning) gospel number ''Church,'' in which Lovett sings of trying to sidetrack a long-winded preacher by creeping onto the balcony and coaxing the choir into singing, ''To the Lord let praises be/It's time for dinner now let's go eat.'' But the most outlandish song here ''Family Reserve,'' a portrait gallery of one clan's dear departed is also the most moving. On paper, the words reek of Edward Goreyesque black humor. For instance, Lovett describes a second cousin who died at age 2: ''It was peanut butter and jelly that did it/The help, she didn't know what to do/She just stood there and she watched him turn blue.'' But he sings those words with tender detachment, recognizing that keeping these people's stories alive even if their lives were so short or so uneventful that their deaths tell the most about them is really the best anyone can do.
Lovett isn't a singer who lays all his cards on the table; he's too cool for that, and sometimes his distance can be vexing. But he does drop some clues as to why he slips the occasional ace up his sleeve. In the country ballad ''She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To'' (featuring Emmylou Harris), he realizes his lover will do just fine without him a terrible, nearly incomprehensible truth: ''She'll dance and sing/Or even learn to fly and spend her time with anyone but me.'' And though you're not sure why he deserved that, you want to believe that this time, anyway, he did nothing worse than stick her braid into an inkwell. B+