Emmylou Harris may never make an album as good as Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" or "9 to 5 and Other Odd Jobs," but then again Harris will never make an album as bad as Parton's "Dolly, Dolly, Dolly" or "The Great Pretender."
While Parton is a wildly erratic talent capable of sublime moments of inspiration and ridiculous collapses in taste, Harris is a more predictable performer. She has never imposed a strong, distinctive personality on her music, but she always displays the best taste in picking songs and musicians. Moreover, her soprano is one of the most delicate, lovely instruments in pop music.
Last year's "The Ballad of Sally Rose" was an artistic breakthrough for Harris. For the first time she wrote an album's worth of confessional songs, and she responded with the most personal singing of her career. On her new album, "Thirteen" (Warner Bros. 9 25352-1), the material is less personal and so is the singing.
Harris returns to the potpourri approach of past albums: a few redone rock songs, some traditional country chestnuts and some new songs from Nashville's progressive country clique. As before, her tasteful arrangements and refined singing are always enjoyable if never surprising.
The songs and arrangements range widely. Harris is least convincing when she strays too far from the pop-country mainstream and attempts something as idiosyncratic as the Cajun of Iry LeJeune's "Lacassine Special" or the rockabilly of Junior Parker's "Mystery Train." She just can't force herself to be that loose.
She's at her best on the slow, heartbreak songs. She gives the country weepers, Merle Haggard's "I Started Loving You Again" and Don Robertson's "You're Free to Go," the perfect air of stifled tears. She gives Bruce Springsteen's "My Father's House" the desolate nightmarish quality it needs.
Harris and her husband-producer Paul Kennerley cowrote the jaunty "Sweetheart of the Pines" and the forlorn "When I Was Yours," which both sound like leftovers from "The Ballad of Sally Rose." Kennerley and Harris' former band leader Rodney Crowell cowrote the bouncy, catchy "I Had My Heart Set on You."
The album's highlight, though, is the duet version of Jack Clement's "Just Someone I Used to Know." Harris gives the song's surface her usual satiny finish, while John Anderson works below the surface with ironies and unspoken implications. As always, Harris is backed by a band that mixes the best of bluegrass picking and pop punch. Ricky Skaggs' successor as Harris' jack-of-all-trades picker is Carl Jackson, who plays fiddle, banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. The harmonies are sung by an all-star choir of Vince Gill, Crowell, Harris and Jackson.
In many ways, Dolly Parton's career resembles Elvis Presley's post-Army career. Both singers grew up poor hillbillies with great voices and sure instincts. Both allowed themselves to be transformed into grotesque self-parodies: Dolly, the platinum-wigged, big-busted doll, and Elvis, the wooden B-movie actor. On record, both were channeled into misbegotten projects with sappy material and arrangements. Yet despite it all, both singers possessed so much talent that they always came across with the occasional brilliant song or solid album amid the embarrassments.
Even late in his career, Presley enjoyed such triumphs as 1968's "Elvis," 1969's "From Elvis in Memphis," 1975's "Elvis Today." And even amid her abortive pop productions, Parton has managed such shining moments as 1980's "9 to 5 and Other Odd Jobs," 1982's "Heartbreak Express" and 1983's "Burlap & Satin."
The big difference between these two careers is that Parton never sustained a period of unadulterated brilliance like the one Presley enjoyed between 1954 and 1958. Instead, she has committed such vinyl atrocities as 1980's "Dolly, Dolly, Dolly" and 1984's "The Great Pretender."
On her new album, "Think About Love" (RCA AHL1-9508), Parton tries the Cyndi Lauper formula for success. It makes sense: Parton's looks are just as outlandish, and her voice is just as special. Like Lauper, Parton takes some obscure pop songs, dresses them up with synthesizers and sings the hell out of them.
The attempt is pretty successful, too. The songs are simple-minded homilies about love won and love lost, and there are great melodic hooks. Those hooks are sharpest on the three songs produced by David Malloy. Over booming drums and sparkling synthesizers, Parton belts out sing-along dance tunes like "Think About Love" and "It's Such a Heartache." If these don't become pop hits, it won't be Parton's fault.
Even better are the three songs produced by Hollywood whiz Val Garay. He helps Parton on simplified but giddy remakes of two old soul tunes: Jerry Butler's "She Don't Love You" and the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself." He also helps her with the album's one undeniably great moment: a slow, heartbreaking version of Troy Seal's "We Had It All," which features Parton's powerful confession over a simple acoustic guitar.
As enjoyable as this album is, it lacks the emotional substance of Parton's best work. Her only composition on this new album is "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?," which appeared in a more countrified arrangement on the superior "Heartbreak Express" album. Reducing a great singer-songwriter like Parton to the level of a Cyndi Lauper makes no more sense than doing the same to Joni Mitchell.