In 2014, Dolly Parton told a British tabloid, “My boobs are fake, my hair’s fake but what is real is my voice and my heart.” Even then, her off-handed response to accusations of lip-syncing on stage already seemed timeless, a perfect encapsulation of her persona and her decades-long career. Journeying from country to pop and back again, Parton’s most consistent quality is that of the glamorous, over-the-top diva with a heart of gold.
The superficial fakeries she lightly mocks only emphasize this. Rather than hiding her authentic self — her unique brand of country, her talent for songwriting, and the legendarily warm personality that has long endeared her to fans — behind the glitz and polish, Dolly Parton gives it all to us at once. Like the best drag queens, she has somehow nailed the trick of appearing “real” and “fake” all at once, blurring the boundary and giving us everything she is in one beautiful, rhinestoned package.
It’s almost audacious that the larger-than-life Parton has called her latest album Pure and Simple (), but it more than lives up to its name, with just ten tracks centered around that most classic of themes: love. It plays to her strengths, blending her classic country sound with a more contemporary sensibility and the accrued wisdom that comes with four decades of stardom. This time around, Parton does indeed keep it both pure and simple, with clean vocals and stripped-back instrumentals. The result is a timeless and uncluttered album that would have been just as solid at the beginning of her career as it is now.
The title track lives up to the album’s promise, with an ebullient mandolin washing over the simple guitar lines lending it an understated brightness. The desire for a simple, uncomplicated love may be universal, but in Parton’s hands it takes on a fresh sheen. Pure and Simple is also heavy on slow-paced ballads, relying on guitar and soft, almost sighing vocals. “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” and “Kiss it (And Make it All Better)” feel intimate and heartfelt, and Richard Dennison’s backing and duet vocals work especially well on the latter. Next to these songs, “Can’t Be That Wrong” feels oddly uninspired, with lyrics like “I don’t wanna be right if loving you is wrong.” While the album is already relatively short, the track probably could have been cut without sacrificing much.
The ballads may provide the emotional weight of the album, but they are largely eclipsed by more energetic numbers such as “Never Not Love You,” a song about an enduring love that leaves itself open to interpretation. Parton has never made a secret of her affection for her fans, and this track leaves just enough room to allow for the possibility that it is addressed to them, a thank-you for standing by her through the years. Her happily defiant spirit is present as well on penultimate track “Head Over High Heels,” a song about a runaway crush that nods without much subtlety towards her own sex appeal.
Above all, Pure and Simple feels like an album that Parton set out to make with modest expectations, which she meets beautifully. It contains no real knockout hits on the level of “Jolene,” though the sultry toe-tapper “I’m Sixteen” comes close, as Parton drives home the themes of timelessness by singing about the reckless optimism of youth. Pop and country are awash with songs about feeling young at heart, but this time we’re made to actually believe it. While this could easily become overwrought in the hands of any other artist, it’s the kind of subject matter that only someone like Parton could pull off with a straight face. Its catchiness certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Late in her career, Parton shows a certain grace in opting for a tried and true approach over a bid for reinvention. If the album sounds overly familiar, it’s because it comes out of a style and tradition of country music that she herself did so much to define. Looking at Parton on the album’s cover, in a plain white jumpsuit, cradling a guitar in a Hallmark landscape, she seems to invite us to take the title at face value.
Pure and Simple is, well, pure and simple, but then again this is nothing new for Parton. At her best, she has taken feelings and experiences that are at once deeply personal and widely relatable and presented them in songs that just demand to be sung, clapped, and lip-synced along to. Pure and Simple may not rank among her most memorable work, but it is quintessential Dolly, an album that reminds us why she has such staying power. In an increasingly uncertain world, it’s comforting to know that Dolly Parton is a constant.
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