“The Dream,” an outstanding new album from the Iowa-raised songwriter Hailey Whitters, is crammed with great country songs, starting with “Ten Year Town,” a lullaby about the cruelty of the Nashville star-machine. On first listen, you’ll probably agree with Whitters that, yes, the music business is a fickle dream-crusher. On your 10th spin, the entire notion of country stardom feels humiliating and absurd. “Fifteen minutes of fame,” Whitters sings during the refrain, her exhaustion curdling into disgust. “Somebody says your name on the TV or [on the] back of a CD.” In other words, sing your truest truth, and instead of being immortalized, you might get a shout-out on a dying media format.
A few lines later, Whitters laments Nashville’s “it girl” marketing strategies, but here, the irritation in her lyrics immediately disintegrates under the distress in her voice. Whitters is the “it girl” now, and she knows it. Success feels like failure. Up feels like down. The beginning feels like the end. Literally: At this point, we’re roughly 90 seconds into the album.
That exquisite, paradoxical energy rarely lets up on “The Dream,” an album where anger, joy, disappointment and fulfillment are never really what they seem. Take “Red Wine & Blue,” a broke-up ballad with a titular refrain that requires Whitters to defuse a bad pun like a bomb. “I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go,” she confesses, dragging behind the beat in shame, “getting drunk in the afternoon, red wine and blue.” Is she disgusted with her punchline, herself or her country? Take her wordplay at face value and she’s comparing her romantic ruin to the collapse of an empire. That might sound melodramatic on paper, but her delivery makes her sound numb and powerless, her heart aching in sync with the national mood.
Whitters is mindful about how she sings her words, and where she sings them, too. They fall from her mouth in atypical jumbles on “Loose Strings,” a morning-after sulk where her dizzy phrasing evokes the messy love affair she’s describing. After an argument soaked in whiskey and tequila, her man tosses her car keys out into his yard so she won’t drive home drunk. “So I staggered home alone,” Whitters sings, each syllable landing like a wobbly footfall. When she reaches the bridge, she closes her eyes and lets the music tell the story: The guitars start playing in reverse, like soused memories rewinding in her mind.
Whitters’s brightest musical ideas can make her worldview seem dark, but it isn’t. If anything, her subtle skepticism keeps her more optimistic ditties from devolving into bad YOLO poetry. Two of the album’s most high-hearted cuts — “The Days” and “Janice at the Hotel Bar” — are overflowing with carpe diem life hacks sung with tuneful discretion. The message is that life is precious. The subtext is that life ends.
“Happy People,” a sunny-with-scattered-clouds kind of tune about following the Golden Rule, was originally co-written with Lori McKenna for Little Big Town, and is reprised on “The Dream” as it was meant to be heard. The song’s most radiant moment comes during the hook, when Whitters shows us how to sing a comma. Do “whatever makes you happy, people,” she declares, allowing that phantom punctuation mark to communicate an impossible, intensifying swirl of alienation and hope. Society is teeming with jerkholes, but wouldn’t it be nice if they could learn to love themselves, let alone one another?
There’s so much significance packed into that insignificant little pause. It’s proof that Whitters knows how to extract maximum existential truth from words, sounds and the nothingness that surrounds them.