‘Pure & Simple’ is an album dedicated to Dolly’s mysterious husband Carl Dean, a man who has kept himself out of the spotlight for her entire career. The songs Dolly has written about him in the past include ‘Jolene’ and ‘Just Because I’m A Woman’, neither of which paint him in an entirely flattering light. To do an album of love songs in the year they renewed their vows is a tribute to the longevity of their marriage, while also offering Dolly something different in terms of theme at this point in her career.
Even though she’s sung many love songs most of her best known solo-written songs deal with personal troubles or heartbreak. Even her most obvious ‘love’ song ‘I Will Always Love You’ is about the end of her platonic working relationship with Porter Wagoner. When it comes to writing about her own personal love for her husband, she’s never given much away.
Maybe she just respects Carl’s notorious privacy too much to let us listener’s into their relationship. Maybe that’s partly why their relationship lasted so long because Dolly kept him and the intimate details of their relationship out of the limelight.
Beginning the album with ‘Pure and Simple’ is perfect, here we have a really gorgeous love song whose title sums up the relationship and the musical arrangements on this album. She describes her love as being ‘divine’ and you could use the same word to describe her career too.
‘Say Forever You’ll Be Mine’ feels even more intimate, admitting that there has been ‘clouds’ and ‘trouble’ in the relationship. She offers again her vow of forever, but there’s an honesty here in the admission ‘I won’t promise you we’ll be happy all the time’. As truthful a song about marriage as could be really, sung in a stark folk style with the haunting fiddle.
Her songwriting across the opening section of the album remains strong, with ‘Never Not Love You’, giving us a list of things that she won’t do including ‘win the Pulitzer Prize’ and ‘be in fashion’ before declaring her love again.
‘Kiss It (And Make It All Better)’ starts as a sentimental ballad, building into a song celebrating the power of love to heal.
Interesting then that at this point of the album Dolly veers away from songs about her husband and in fact brings in two songs about cheating. ‘Can’t Be That Wrong’ is a ballad about the guilt and shame of temptation. Then we have ‘Outside Your Door’ where she turns up at her lover’s house has two bottles of wine, ready to enjoy herself. Dolly always sounds pretty comfortable singing these kind of songs – either she likes taking on a character in the country music cheating song tradition or maybe she really is trying to admit something about her own life – who knows!
After that affair she then comes back to a traditional love song on ‘Tomorrow is Forever’, which sounds more like something she has written about her life as an older woman. Here she says yesterday is gone, and asks her love to go with her into the future.
‘I’m Sixteen’ is about looking back on her youthful romances with a cheerful nostalgia. Unfortunately the melody and production let this one down, which is a little toe-curling at times.
‘Head Over High Heels’ has Dolly dressing herself up for her lover, going out on the town for a ‘date’, before ‘making love until the sun comes up’. It’s cheesy and dated sounding, with a reference to Adele thrown in randomly. Now if Dolly had decided to record a heartbreak song inspired by Adele’s music then I think she’d probably have produced something a lot better than this one.
The softer, gentle ‘Forever Love’ is one of the better vocal performances on this record, her voice has a lovely, emotional catch in the high notes. Here she also relies on strings to mimic the feelings of her delivery, to nice effect.
Mama is a sweet little tribute to her mother and all that she sacrificed for her own family. On ‘Lovin’ You’ love is described as a ‘transfusion’ which has the power to ‘restore’ – a guiding light in the dark, just like her music.
Dolly writes, produces and arranges every song on the album, with her band mates Richard Dennison and Tom Rutledge getting co-credits. I always admire Dolly for taking control of her sound and vision like this, especially on an album that is obviously deeply personal. Keeping it simple works well for a collection like this, although it is a much weaker collection than Blue Smoke which preceded it. It’s likely this one was a rush release in order to capitalise on her post-Glastonbury success, especially as the UK release includes the live recording of that show (read my thoughts on seeing Dolly at Glastonbury here).
Dolly’s musical offerings after this album have veered off in random directions, mainly connected to other media projects like the movie soundtrack to Dumplin’ and the album inspired by her novel ‘Run Rose Run’. Her children’s and Christmas albums were fun side projects and she has announced a rock covers album but hopefully she will get back in the studio with a country/Americana producer soon.