Parton’s 41st studio LP sparkles with the enthusiasm of a debut.
Andrew Mueller 2011-08-16
In the fifth decade of her career, and with a quiet regularity unusual for her species of kitsch megastar, Dolly Parton continues to make new records (Better Day is her sixth since the turn of the century). While she clearly believes that she got where she is through dogged graft, and that it’s work that will maintain her position, Better Day has none of the grudging, cranked-out-by-the-yard tone that might be expected. Indeed, it sparkles with the earnest enthusiasm of an ingénue’s debut – a rare and impressive trick given this is her 41st studio album.
As the title suggests, the defining motif of Better Day is uplift – gratitude for what one has, and optimism for what one might acquire or accomplish. The title cut is a sort of anti-blues, a breezy (and almost convincing) reduction of great troubles to temporary and fleeting irritants; and the opening track, In the Meantime, is a daringly existential refutation of the portents of America’s legion Armageddon-mongers (“Let us not fear / What is not clear”), which tips a hat gently in the direction of Bob Luman’s Let’s Think About Living.
Even the mercilessly upbeat Parton seems to realise, however, that little is so soul-destroying as unadulterated good cheer. Better Day is therefore astutely laced with a few heartbreakers. The best of these – Get Out and Stay Out, Just Leaving – stand comparison with the potted melodramas she recorded opposite Porter Wagoner in the late 60s and early 70s. The worst – Holding Everything, Together You and I – are oversung, overproduced and overwrought. Let Love Grow demonstrates Parton’s enduring knack of making sentimentality genuinely affecting, but Shine Like the Sun is rather too easily imagined as a karaoke favourite of the recently divorced.
Parton’s get-out clause for any transgressions into mawkishness is Country is as Country Does, an addition to the lengthy canon of defensively celebratory songs about country and the people who sing it (Loretta Lynn’s You’re Looking at Country is its most obvious ancestor). It is, like its author, and like this album, defiantly difficult to dislike.