Album Review: Dolly Parton Is Just ‘Pure And Simple’

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In the hands of any other interpreter, an album as pure and simple as Dolly Parton’s 43rd studio album would fall flatter than a flapjack (without syrup) on the sidewalk. But the living legend’s pristine and feathery vocal delivers stunning honesty and timeless melodies as golden and raw as those in her heyday. “Can’t Be That Wrong” is an especially visceral and moving track, comfortably perched in the middle of a magnificently traditional project. Following 2014’s astounding Blue Smoke, even Dolly had a high bar to reach, but, as is often her way, she shatters that bar without flinching.

Pure and Simple, co-produced with Richard Dennison and Tom Rutledge, is often delicate, “Kiss It (and Make It All Better,” and reflective,”Forever Love,” but always powerful and unfiltered. The acoustic underpinning allows Dolly’s vocal to breathe and flitter across the arrangements without feeling like a tug-of-war with steel guitar or fiddle. Instead, the record is fervent but easy, glowing but subdued. Earlier this year, she celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary with husband Carl Dean. To her, there was no time like the present to honor that love, in all its forms — the highs, the lows and the sturdy in-betweens are all appropriately explored on the meager 10 tracks. “I was just trying to think about all the different colors of love through the years,” Parton told Rolling Stone. “I thought, ‘Well I’m going to write about mine and Carl’s relationship. It’s just a pure and simple relationship,’ so it started with that and then I thought, ‘Well why don’t I just write a whole album of love songs?'”

With an impressive arsenal of insight in her pen, Dolly examines every single layer of romance, even the kind that makes you feel giddy and young again. “I’m Sixteen” lies a bit on the kitschy side, but Dolly’s clever phrasing is exemplary and saves the ditty from getting too parmesan on the cheese. “Head Over Heels,” too, highlights the singer’s more confident and sassy lyrical approach. In glorified acoustic-like settings such as these, the 70-year-old proves that age really is just a number. Her reimagining of previous Porter Wagoner duets, “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” or “Tomorrow Is Forever,” are fresh and utter affirmations of her storytelling capabilities. Even when the sweetness is lathered on thick, there is a grounded vibrancy only Dolly could contribute. “I Will Always Love You” will always be the gold standard when it comes to love songs, but somehow this tunesmith continues to exceed those expectations.

Must-Listen Tracks: “Pure and Simple,” “Can’t Be That Wrong,” “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine,” “Head Over Heels”

Grade: 4 out of 5