After the platinum crossover smash success of ‘Here You Come Again’, Dolly decided to stick closely to that pop formula for her follow up album ‘Heartbreaker’, released July 1978. She was now being managed by Sandy Gallin, introduced to her by Mac Davis, and he again teamed her up with pop producers Charles Koppleman and Gary Klein. Dolly also received a production credit, showing how she was taking back control of her own career in the wake of her split with Porter. Another fact worth noting is that 1978 was the first year since 1967 where Dolly only released one album. The insane songwriting productivity and release schedule of the Porter Wagoner years was well and truly over. In the end Dolly didn’t need more than one album since Heartbreaker dominated the country charts, staying at number one for nine consecutive weeks.
Another interesting element of this album is the dreamy album art, designed by Ed Caraeff. The imagery is soft, floaty, romantic and feminine. Dolly wears pink, shows off her legs in a way that is flirty and suggestive. Dolly’s famous Playboy interview took place in October 1978 and she was using her sexuality and assets to make an impact on popular culture. She described the interview as a time when she was looking to move into ‘the mainstream and take it right to the edge, but not do the whole dirty deal’. This was also around the time she did that interview with Barbara Walters (which recently went viral) where she was challenged on her image and responded with fierce confidence.
The music on the Heartbreaker album is decidedly trendy seventies pop with opening track I Really Got The Feeling, written by Billy Vera, setting the saccharine tone from the beginning. It’s Too Late to Love Me Now has some faint pedal steel, alongside the lush seventies strings, making it the closest to country you will hear on this record. Her vocal is pretty perfect, filled with regretful longing but the song is forgettable next to her own self-penned classics. It was first released by Charly McClain in 1977 and also became a minor country hit for Cher too in 1979.
We’re Through Forever (Til Tomorrow) is another schmaltzy seventies ballad, sung with additional help from Richard Dennison (her longtime pianist and ex-brother in law). This song was written by Blaise Tosti, that controversial individual who once scandalously accused Dolly of seducing him aged 13. Sure Thing is an odd song – a mix of seventies funk and rock, and the first on the album that Dolly wrote herself. Lyrically it’s about dancing and partying, a pretty shallow theme overall. This leads into the funk of With You Gone, and you have to give Dolly credit for experimenting with some new musical styles even if they are less than convincing in execution.
Both those songs are just the previews for the main attraction – Dolly’s self-penned disco song Baby I’m Burnin’. And it’s a song that Dolly still sings in her live show to this day, hamming it up like only she can. She sells the whole damn thing with such confidence it’s like she was born to disco – even if the art of dancing itself was never her strong point.
Dolly follows up the disco classic with another nod to her ‘country’ background on Nickels and Dimes, co-written with her brother Floyd. A story song about her busking days as a child, it starts with acoustic guitar, (largely absent from the rest of the record), before going full pop production overkill in the chorus. If you strip this one back it could be a sweet little country song – in fact Buck Owens did a straight country version that works much better in terms of reflecting the story of the lyrics.
The Man is about someone who despite being ‘worn and weary from life’ still had ‘style’. It starts as sounding like a love song and then reveals itself to be dedicated to her father. It’s an oddly jarring song – the lyrics are unconvincing when sung to this pop funk style.
One of the decisions Dolly took at this time in her career was to call in the ‘big guns’ to write for her, like Carole Bayer Sager. Looking back this had varying degrees of success in terms of the long term legacy of her music – some of Dolly’s songs written by others have stood the test of time (like Here You Come Again and Old Flames) but many now seem like calculated choices to gain traction in the pop world. Looking back over her career it’s ironic that the songs Dolly is known for are mainly self-penned hits – she didn’t need to go to another songwriter for material. The title track Heartbreaker is a pretty standard seventies pop ballad – Dolly had sung better songs hundreds of times before. What this song had was slick, shiny pop production which was an easier sell to the masses.
I Wanna Fall in Love is another straight disco song, a reflection of its time and place in music history. You can’t blame Dolly for hitching a ride on the current trends in pop music and you certainly feel she is enjoying herself on the album overall. Some of her more traditional country fans would reportedly sit down when she played any of her more ‘disco’ songs, and debates about authenticity and country music continue to rage decades later.
At the time the critics weren’t impressed either – Rolling Stone described the album as sounding like Dolly had had a ‘lobotomy’, labelling her the ‘great American joke’. The critic refused to accept Dolly was an airhead and had to conclude that this move to dumb down her sound and dilute her country authenticity was a premeditated career choice. And he was right. To transcend her genre Dolly had to let go of some of the things that brought her the success in the first place, and that is what many might find difficult about these run of late seventies, early eighties albums. Note that it was this same year that she teamed up with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt for the first Trio Sessions, suggesting that Dolly herself still wanted to sing real country music. She was smart enough not to let go of her roots entirely.
In the end Dolly had to make sacrifices to reach the level of success she craved. Heartbreaker was just another step on that road to superstardom.