I keep hearing new songs about the apocalypse, the reckoning, about hell being here already in the lives of the poor and the downtrodden, and heaven being an unknown. The theme crosses genres — like YACHT’s album-length warning against dreams of the afterlife becoming a replacement for engagement with the world as it exists now to Brad Paisley’s song about personal hells being worse than any afterlife-hell could be. Leave it to Dolly Parton to be the cheeriest about it, on her new album’s leadoff track “In the Meantime”, while singing the same essential message: We don’t know what’s going to happen when, so let’s make the most of things here, even in the face of pain and despair. None of this is new, Parton reminds us: “You know people been talking about the end of time / Ever since time began / We’ve been living in the last days / Ever since the first day / Ever since the dawn of man.”
Parton, unlike some of the others, is a steadfast believer in the divine, but also an eternal optimism and sentimentalist who nonetheless has written and sung numerous stark portraits of despair that make her come off more like a realist. From the beginning of her career, she has sung about humankind’s capacity for both horrible deeds and beautiful ones: forgiveness, tenderness, generosity. “Eden’s garden waits within,” she sings.
Better Day seems a quintessential Parton sentiment. Like her music as a whole, the title song acknowledges how horrible life can be (“We’ve seen enough hell right here and right now”) while mostly mounting an argument, tinged with spirituality, for determination and hard work, for always pushing forward, clinging to the hope that things will get better. As a theme for a Parton album, it reminds me of her 1973 album Bubbling Over, with its cover photo of a smiling Parton’s face rising upward on top of a gushing water fountain. That album put a happy face, and happy title track, forward but contained a well of sad songs. Better Day is like that too, though the sadness is, in most songs, more hidden. She also has butterflies flying around the cover art, reminding us of her tribute to love’s power for happiness but also its fragility — “Love Is Like a Butterfly”, from her 1974 album of the same name.
Musically, the album is more reminiscent of the pop sheen of her ’80s albums crossed with the earnestness of her late ’90s/early ’00s bluegrass albums. The specificity and spunk of her last album, 2008’s Backwoods Barbie, have been more or less forsaken for an attempt at intimacy, where the songs all resemble messages between people, whether it’s from one lover to another, from one person to their god or from Dolly Parton to all of humankind. Often, a song could be all of these. They seldom seem to be about one specific person or set of events; they’re more purposefully generic, designed to resonate with the most people at once. Think of this as Dolly’s Life Lessons.
The exceptions, in the general vs. specific balance, are the jokey “Country Is As Country Does”, where Parton (assisted by Mac Davis, in the album’s lone co-write) maintains that she’s inherently country, even when doing rich-people things like eating sushi in a mansion, and “Get Out and Stay Out”, the most devastating of the love songs. It’s devastating because it’s a tale of how love can turn into abuse, and because she sings it delicately, to reveal her character’s frailty, which is more powerful since the song becomes a forceful kiss-off and statement of self-determination. By the end, she’s built up to a fervor, one filled with joy at the expression of independence. On “I Just Might”, she sounds even more fragile, lost; again building with determination — “I just might make it work / I just might make it after all” – though there’s uncertainty in that “just might” phrase.
These songs leave room for weakness, even as Parton often resembles a motivational speaker. “Shine Like the Sun” captures her essential message well: Don’t give up, we all hurt, but we all can heal and move forward, can always improve. Life is filled with lies and tears, but we should always keep pushing ahead. The same message is turned outward in “Let Love Grow”: Take a chance, be good to people, and great things can happen. “Hindsight’s always out to blind you / Look ahead and not behind you.” The song turns into a joyous singalong: “If I could, I’d ease your doubts for good,” she sings, always the maternal figure, watching out for us all.
Parton’s sentimental, cheery sort of optimism is rooted in an understanding of how bad things can be, in a knowledge of extreme pain and loneliness. It’s also rooted in an American sense of “can do”. She’s got a message of love for us all, and sees a future of rainbows and butterflies, but that vision carries with it a warning that this is all up to us, that success comes with sacrifice, love with pain, happiness with risk and that life is always hard work. Her daydreaming music doesn’t have that much of a tolerance for daydreamers, actually. This is humanist, open-arms songwriting with a get-to-work-everybody mentality.