Rainbow was the first of Dolly’s albums for her new record label Columbia, after her nearly two decade long relationship with RCA ended. When signing with CBS she reportedly envisioned rotating the style of her albums, with one pure pop followed by one pure country. The problem with that plan was exposed almost immediately. Rainbow was Dolly’s lowest charting album for nearly fifteen years and the Trio album with Emmylou and Linda (also released this year) was her most successful in a decade. The public had spoken: they wanted Dolly back singing country music. At age 41 her pop dream was dead.
Looking back from this vantage point it’s hard not to feel utter frustration that she squandered so many of her songwriting years chasing empty success in the vapid world of pop music. And yet there’s something so absolutely characteristically Dolly about her ceaseless ambition and inability to give up on mainstream chart success.
During this same time period she launched her own variety show Dolly, for which she was paid a reported $44 million. Despite huge ratings at the start, viewing figures eventually tailed off as the skits and celebrity guests failed to entice viewers. The episode where she returns to Nashville, reunites with Porter and sings with an array of legends is still worth watching but the rest was even dated at the time. The more significant development in her career was the launch of Dollywood, which opened in 1986. Dolly was building her brand and her business separate from music, long before anyone else even dreamed of such possibilities.
So you can rightly conclude that her focus was not on songwriting during this period and so Rainbow includes only two songs written by Dolly herself, neither of which are memorable entires to her canon. The album was produced by Steve ‘Golde’ Goldstein who had previously worked with Diana Ross and would go on to play keyboards for Dolly after this one outing as her main producer.
Opening song The River Unbroken aims to be a big eighties pop power ballad but falls a little short. Lyrically it badly mixes river and train metaphors – that’s as close to country music as you’re going to find on Rainbow.
I Know You By Heart might have sunk without a trace on its release as a single but I think it probably deserved better. Sure it’s eighties ballad by numbers but it’s quite beautiful at times, and the presence of Smokey Robinson elevates it above the average songs on the rest of the album. The problem Dolly faced in this era is that when you chase trends, and ones that seem so antithetical to your origins, old fans are turned off and new fans are hard to find.
Dump the Dude is the big eighties dance pop number and while it is undeniably cheesy as hell it is one of my favourite guilty pleasures in Dolly’s discography (up there with Potential New Boyfriend). What I love about it is the central feminist message that Dolly is singing to her friend – get rid of this guy from your life, you are worth so much more. If Dolly Parton was a therapist she’d be the best therapist in the world.
‘Red Hot Screaming Love’ is another attempt at a dramatic power ballad written by Mark Chapman, known for Ballroom Blitz and Tiger Feet. It could almost read like a response song to Dump the Dude where the narrator attempts to explain to her friends who are ‘cruel’ why she can’t give up her passionate lover. Unfortunately the production leaves me cold.
Make Love Work is a lighter and dreamier song and Dolly sounds more comfortable singing this one. When the choir joins in towards the end it’s a pretty enchanting moment. Life’s just too beautiful to spend it feeling hurt / let’s start to take the chance to make love work. The message of this one reminds me of some of her sweeter, folk songs.
Everyday Hero might have the faintest echo of a country guitar at the start, but that soon gets lost in the 80s synths. It is a story song about ordinary people striving to find their ‘rainbow’ and the melody is pretty catchy too. A writing credit on this one is one Blaise Tosti, whose notorious name we haven’t heard for a good long while. The less said about him the better.
Two Lovers is a little risqué choice for Dolly. Songs like this helped her to create a certain image for herself as fun, flirty and sexually free, which for a woman who has been happily married since the sixties was another element of her impressive marketing strategy.
Could I Have Your Autograph is the first of Dolly’s solo writes on the album but it’s not one of her best efforts, to say the least. She asks a guy out and even though he’s not famous she thinks he should be, hence the ‘autograph’. Melodically forgettable, it falls apart really before it fades out. Savin It For You is catchier, even if lyrically it’s as dull as anything she’s ever sung.
Album closer More Than I Can Say is an intimate love song delivered in a quiet whisper. The understated drama of the vocal is overpowered a little by the string section but the sweet sentiment means it’s a nice way to end the album.
For me Rainbow is forgettable pop but far from her worst album of the decade, even if it was the biggest commercial failure at the time. By rejecting her pop Rainbow, fans would soon be rewarded with a welcome and long lasting return to her country roots.