Loretta Lynn’s latest may lack the thrilling novelty value of Van Lear Rose, but it compensates in relaxed, back-to-basics charm and grace.
When Loretta Lynn teamed up with Jack White on her last album Van Lear Rose (2004) the results surpassed all expectations. As superficially unlikely as the White/Lynn collaboration may have appeared on paper, the record played to the strengths of both artists while generating an exciting and dramatic tension. Combining punchy rock 'n' roll flourishes with intimate acoustic moments that served Lynn’s heart-on-sleeve story-telling style equally well, the album came out swinging, with White’s roots affiliations complementing and stretching the approach of an artist who may once have declared “If you’re looking at me, you’re looking at country”, but whose attitude and game-changing lyrics always had a good deal of rock grit beneath them.
Arriving 12 years after Van Lear Rose, Lynn’s latest record, Full Circle, doesn’t have the thrilling novelty value of its predecessor. If anything, it feels deliberately back-to-basics in its approach. Produced by Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, the album’s most obvious reference point is the Johnny Cash American Recordings series, but the overall tone is lighter and less portentous.
As the title indicates, there’s a strong retrospective element to the record which mixes new songs with covers of Appalachian ballads that Lynn grew up on, alongside standards and re-recorded versions of Lynn classics. That the album comes out as cohesive as it does is down to Lynn’s ability to stamp each track with her distinctive spirit and personality. Her voice -- with that unmistakeable Kentucky twang that once memorably turned the words “woman” and “swimming” into full rhymes -- retains its terrific snap and spark, but it now also boasts a poignant, grainier undertow that gives these songs a lovely, elegant grace.
The album opens with the sound of Lynn’s speaking voice, as she recalls “the first song I wrote”, before she and the musicians segue into that very number: the beguiling waltz “Whispering Sea”, which was the B-Side to her first single. The song establishes the album’s approach, with arrangements built around a pleasing Old Timey palette of guitar, piano, and fiddle. Lynn’s covers of “Secret Love” and “Always on My Mind”, complete with weepy pedal steel, are both engaging. But stronger still is the folk material (the first time Lynn has put such songs on a record) with an upbeat “Black Jack David”, a chilly “In the Pines” and a moving “I Never Will Marry” among the album’s gems. The revisits of her classic “Fist City” and “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” are both smart, the former losing none of its combative energy, the latter benefiting from a stirring dose of gospel spirit. Rather than mere filler, these songs simply sound more like themselves than ever in these intelligent new incarnations.
Two duets, both on new compositions, are placed at the end of the album. Elvis Costello doesn’t make a huge impact on “Everything It Takes”, but with Lynn popping out lyrical pearls like “She turned you on and then you turned on me”, the track doesn’t lack for appeal. Even better is the closer “Lay Me Down”, which Lynn and Willie Nelson turn into the gentlest and most graceful of goodbyes. “There are no tears where I am bound / And I’ll be at peace when they lay me down,” the pair sing, and the resolve and acceptance expressed makes the song a truly touching leave-taking.
The single track I find most captivating, though, and the one that best sums up Lynn’s artistry for me, is her take on T. Graham Brown’s “Wine Into Water”. In lesser hands this drunkard’s plea could turn into a maudlin misfire. But Lynn’s treatment is so committed and heartfelt, so attuned to the hope for redemption that’s at the soul of the composition, that the song becomes the album’s centerpiece.
Hearteningly, despite the sentiments expressed on the album’s closing track, Lynn doesn’t sound like she’s about to bow out any time soon. On the contrary, she’s revealed that she recorded over 90 (!) songs for Full Circle and that there are plenty more where those came from. “I want to record them before I quit singing”, Lynn has been quoted as saying. “But I ain’t figurin’ I’m quitting. As long as I can sing, I’m going to be out there singing.” That’s a happy prospect, for Full Circle reveals Lynn to be in vibrant form as an artist, and wearing her legendary status very lightly. There’s no grandstanding on this modest yet confident record. Rather there’s the humility, humour, wisdom and hard-won truths of country music at its best.