Reviewing your all-time favorite artist can sometimes produce a crisis of confidence. On the one hand, you know you are biased to love everything that artist produces, while on the other, you know you have incredibly high standards for anything new that arrives. It can therefore be nerve-wracking when new music is released, leading to disappointment as often as automatic adoration. No artist can continue on an upward trend of quality because no artist is perfect, and such contemplation can also leave the reviewer tangled up in judging the validity of their own reactions.
It is through this lens that I approached Dolly Parton’s new album ‘Pure and Simple’. I have been a super fan of hers for almost ten years, and it is for this reason I chose to momentarily break our hiatus. However, that doesn’t mean I cannot find fault in her output, and I have never been afraid to note where I felt a song or album wasn’t her best. As a listener whose focus is usually on deft lyricism, Dolly’s repertoire provides a lot of meat; still, she is not impervious to straying into cheese or even clunkiness on occasion. She’s written upwards of three thousand songs, so that is to be expected, but there is no harm in pointing out when she becomes overly sentimental or kitschy, despite her sincerest of intentions.
‘Pure and Simple’ is an album of love songs, thus generally predetermining the kind of cheesiness that from time to time has made me cringe. The record tends to recall a much earlier songwriting style in country music, the folksy melodies and simplicity of her Appalachian roots mixing with the saccharine sheen of 1960s Nashville Sound and 1970s Countrypolitan. It’s where she comes from, after all, and following a string of albums since the mid-2000s that employed more modern production and poppier arrangements, it is certainly a nice change that admittedly doesn’t quite live up to her bluegrass era, circa 1998-2002.
Dolly has made a career off taking her campiness seriously (one only has to look at the marketing-driven, permanent alterations to her appearance to know that), so despite a return to her roots in some ways we still find the songs on this record to be drenched in sugar. On ‘I’m Sixteen’, for example, she spiritedly sings of the lifelong love that makes her feel sixteen again, and while parts of the lyrics are evocative and nostalgic, others drift into (perhaps deliberate) childishness. “I’m sixteen, yeah / I’m sixteen, yeah / We’re in love / Oh, happy day.” Sometimes, the towering skyscraper of her own canon can make the other buildings pale in comparison. We know how she can skilfully navigate sentimentality with clever twists and turns, so when she falls back into the generic and the simplistic, it can be frustrating (even though we know not every song can be a ‘Coat of Many Colors’).
Take the title track, for example. “It’s so pure it’s almost sacred / Simply put it feels divine / I just love you / Pure and simple / Pure and simple and sublime / Don’t it seem we spent a lifetime / Looking for that perfect love / Like a dream we finally found it / Pure and simple / Well good for us,” she sings during the chorus and second verse. Certainly she delivers the lyric in the sincerest manner she knows, but in an album filled entirely of songs in a similar vein, I begin to long for an edge, an ache, a break in the blanket of glucose. It is possible to produce an album of love songs grounded in imperfect reality – love that bites, love that hurts, but love that ultimately prevails, rather than love seemingly borne of idealistic, angelic origin. There are a growing number of women in country and Americana of late who have been doing this very effectively, and Dolly does not ignore the concept on this record. ‘Can’t Be That Wrong’ is an excellent contemplation of what it is to love two people, and how the perpetrator tries to reconcile this sin with their faith in God, while ‘Outside Your Door’ is a notably lighter, Dolly-fied take on how lust drives us to keep returning to an old lover.
Still, despite my reservations about some of the lyrical and narrative content on ‘Pure and Simple’, I can say that the music, from the melodies to the arrangements and beyond, is some of the best she has ever produced. Despite the sugary sweet approach on some songs, the Appalachian folk- and bluegrass-grounded instrumentation suits her the most adeptly of all her stylistic ventures, and even the more country pop vibes of ‘Outside Your Door’ and ‘Head Over High Heels’ (complete with electric guitar) retain a bluesy undercurrent that keep them from leaping too far away from the rest of the album. ‘Forever Love’ in particular stands out, for the utterly world-stopping and achingly beautiful classical string section and classical guitar picking, accompanying the 19th Century folk melody that pours so easily from Dolly’s lips.
In all, ‘Pure and Simple’ is not her best album, but it contains a handful of great songs and beautiful arrangements that wouldn’t go amiss in a fans’ collection. The true highlight of this record is the music, and Dolly’s longtime collaborator and producer Kent Wells should be highly praised for his input here. I hope, ultimately, that the ever-increasing presence of bluegrass and folk music on her two most recent albums signals a continuing trend, and that in the years to come we hear a lot more of it from her. It’s what she does best, after all.
‘Pure and Simple’ lands in stores on Friday, August 19. The US edition contains a second disc featuring Dolly’s greatest hits. The UK edition contains a second disc featuring the full live recording of her 2014 Glastonbury performance.