The arrival of her 41st (!) studio album, “Better Day,” makes it clear: Dolly Parton is the closest science will ever come to an animatronic synthesis of Lady Gaga, Loretta Lynn and Hello Kitty.
“Better Day,” like Parton’s last disc, 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie,” is a restless jumble of styles weighted toward mainstream country. “Together You and I” is one of those jaunty, genre-less buddy songs that pop up on Pixar soundtracks; the bluesy, talk-sung title track is something only Dolly can get away with, if only just; likewise “In the Meantime,” a rejection of End Times doomsayers that, like so much of “Better Day,” would seem maddeningly facile if anybody else was doing it (“Drop this doomsday attitude,” chides Dolly, who is not going to tell you twice).
“Better Day” is only as great as it needs to be, existing mainly as a containment vehicle for Sassy Dollyisms such as “You don’t drink the water if you don’t dig the well,” “I’m quite content with who I am / And if you ain’t, well, kiss my ham,” etc. There’s such a formidable steeliness to songs like “Country Is as Country Does,” one of those traditional twang-fests Parton mixes in to shore up her base, it would seem only logical to send her to North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Il.
But even at her grittiest, Parton is the definition of effervescent adorableness, as irresistible as kittens or cupcakes or rainbows. She skirts self-parody throughout, and comes dangerously close to comparing herself to Jesus on the things-I-gave-up-for-fame weepie “The Sacrifice,” but it’s such a three-hankie cornball stunner, he probably wouldn’t mind.
“In the Meantime,” “Together You and I”