Forty-nine years into a recording career that has earned her eight Grammys and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Dolly Parton doesn’t have much left to prove. So on her 43rd studio LP, the 70-year-old sticks to a tried-and-true musical path: Pure + Simple finds Parton returning to her roots with 10 stellar, stripped-down love songs.
Parton has said in interviews that she was inspired by a recent personal milestone: her 50th wedding anniversary with husband Carl Dean. And fittingly for someone who’s endured a half-century relationship, Pure + Simple explores many facets of relationships: new romance (“I’m Sixteen”), scandalous affairs (“Can’t Be That Wrong”), forgiveness (“Tomorrow Is Forever”), passionate nights (“Head Over High Heels”), and, of course, everlasting love (“Say Forever You’ll Be Mine”).
Occasionally the album feels like it might be on the verge of wading too far into sappy Hallmark Card territory—like on the hymn-like album closer “Forever Love,” where Parton sings, “No other arms come to mind when you hold me/As if heaven knew that for you I was made.” But those moments are rare, and the album is saved by Parton’s self-assured soprano, which has lost none of its girlish charm.
Sure, Pure + Simple doesn’t have an instant classic like Parton’s 1973 standard “I Will Always Love You.” But it shows that five decades into her career, Parton isn’t a nostalgia act—she’s still one of America’s most vital country songsmiths.