Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, which was produced by the White Stripes' Jack White (and mastered in Memphis at Easley McCain Studios), might be the most praised album of 2004 so far, but there's plenty of reason to be skeptical about that.
Over the past decade, there have been dozens of these high-profile "comeback" records from aging stars. Almost all of them are celebrated, particularly by national, mainstream media outlets and daily newspapers, and many of them are dull or worse. The best --Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, Merle Haggard's If I Could Only Fly, some of the lower-profile recent Willie Nelson records (Spirit, Rainbow Connection) --tend to come when these artists are left to their own devices and happen to find a groove. The higher the concept -- celebrity-guest songwriters, duet partners, or producers --the more potential for a disconnect between the press a record gets and its listenability. Examples: Johnny Cash's youth-marketed, Rich Rubin-produced mythology exploitation jobs, Solomon Burke's R&B-for-NPR Don't Give Up on Me, Nelson's cluttered, major-label snores Milk Cow Blues and The Great Divide.
So, how come Van Lear Rose is a high-concept comeback worthy of its ink? Start with the vocals: On Don't Give Up on Me, the aging Burke sounded like a shadow of his '60s self, but, at age 68, Lynn's rich Appalachian twang is still close to vintage. Then listen to White's astute production. His sonic fingerprints are all over Van Lear Rose, especially when he revs up his guitar. On the lead single, "Portland, Oregon," White adds an arty guitar overture that Owen Bradley would have never allowed, while on "Have Mercy," he does a credible impersonation of a 21st-century Sam Phillips. But White also knows when to show restraint and doesn't let his personality overshadow Lynn's. At its best, Van Lear Rose evokes the musical spirit of late-'60s Lynn without imitating the sound.
But the real reason Van Lear Rose is such a triumph is the songs, all of them written by Lynn, the majority of them great. Most of these songs fit familiar types, and thus their uniform excellence testifies to Lynn's formal songwriting chops. Some are pure country: There's the archetypal elegance of "Trouble On the Line," which White accents with steel and acoustic guitar licks. "Women's Prison" is a brand-new condemned-person's lament not far below the form's standard-bearer, "The Long Black Veil." And "Mrs. Leroy Brown" is a slice of honky-tonk that sounds modern and classic at the same time.
Others are pure Lynn: "Portland, Oregon" is a good-lovin' duet where Lynn has White step into the Conway Twitty role. Best of all is "Family Tree," which might be the sequel (and equal) to "Fist City." An understated little shuffle with steel-guitar accents and a perfect fiddle solo, Lynn aims the song at another piece of "trash" trying to steal her man, and as much as I've always disliked the discourse that dismisses modern Nashville in favor of costume alt-country bands, it's inconceivable that an under-40 CMT starlet could sing this songwith the gravity and identification Lynn brings to it. On the chorus, Lynn delivers (considering the source) one of the coldest kiss-offs ever recorded: "No I didn't come to fight/If he was a better man I might/But I wouldn't dirty my hands/On trash like you."
Then there are songs about right now, songs that explore the reality of a coal miner's daughter not as a young mother keeping honky-tonk angels away from her man but as widowed empty-nester. With White adding harmony and lending the song a shot of "Hotel Yorba"-style front-porch intimacy, "This Old House" looks back on that life with simultaneous sadness and joy, while "Miss Being Mrs." examines the otherworldly loneliness at the end of a 50-year marriage with such matter-of-fact realness (and resolve) that you realize what a projection the topic is in most other country songs.
From White's perspective, Van Lear Rose is a reminder that his musicality can still rise above his status as volatile media figure. And it's also the better sequel to White Blood Cells (which was dedicated to Lynn), since Lynn is both a better songwriter than Jack and a superior singer to Meg White or Holly Golightly. For Lynn, it's a valedictory for a career that stands among country music's most compelling. The "comeback" record it really reminds me of? Billy Bragg and Wilco's miraculous Mermaid Avenue, where they updated some vintage Woody Guthrie songs with wonder and love and inspiration. Only this time the songwriter was around to sing them herself.