Published May 16, 2014Blue Smoke, Dolly Parton's 42nd studio album, does not try to make any grand lyrical or musical statements. It isn't an attempt to displace Taylor Swift or Miranda Lambert from atop the country charts, nor is it one of Parton's critically lauded bluegrass excursions. It is an album of small pleasures, an eclectic collection of songs that showcases many of the qualities that have made the Tennessee singer such a vital force in country music for five decades.
A lot of these pleasures come from a stellar opening trio of songs: the title track, a rollicking kiss-off complete with a spoken-word interlude and a rousing bluegrass breakdown; "Unlikely Angel," a pretty acoustic ballad where Parton's ageless, crystal clear voice still reaches impossible heights; and a tasteful arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." After these early peaks, the album takes a brief wrong turn with the well-intentioned but eminently skippable AC duet "You Can't Make Old Friends," which reunites Parton with a weathered Kenny Rogers (her duet with Willie Nelson on the jazzy countrypolitan ballad "From Here to the Moon and Back" fares much better). "Home," a throwaway bit of forced nostalgia, is the album's most obvious concession to current trends on country radio and a rare instance in which Parton's personality fails to salvage a bland, lifeless song.
The rest of Blue Smoke is reminiscent of 2011's Better Day in its eclecticism, alternating between achingly beautiful folk laments (the harmony-heavy take on "Banks of the Ohio," a 19th-century murder ballad; the soaring "If I Had Wings") and cheeky Dolly-isms (she accuses a man of making her "the fresh catch of the day on your Romeo buffet" on "Lover du Jour"). It also wouldn't be a recent Dolly Parton album without an update of a classic-rock staple — here, Parton takes the lust out of Bon Jovi's "Lay Your Hands on Me" and turns the song into a testifyin' gospel anthem with enough commitment and conviction in her voice to make even the harshest cynic a believer.
Fans will find much to love in Blue Smoke, and while nothing here approaches "Jolene" or "Coat of Many Colors" or "Here You Come Again," songs like the title track or "Banks of the Ohio" wouldn't feel out of place on a playlist next to these classics. (Sony Masterworks)