As the first tentative strums reel you into Loretta Lynn’s first album in four years, and her voice leads you into the heartfelt, folksy narrative that is “Van Lear Rose,” the most startling facet of the sound is not the guitar textures of her improbable collaborator, White Stripes man Jack White. It’s the pure, backwoods “country” in Ms. Lynn’s voice. A striking instrument, one that’s been largely missing from the pop landscape for nearly a generation, her succinct, Appalachian twang burrows its way into a listener’s subconscious.
That the songs, all written or co-written by Ms. Lynn, resonate with slice-of-life struggles and epiphanies solidifies the stature of “Van Lear Rose” (Interscope) as one 2004’s strongest and most surprising albums. Expanding on career-long themes like fidelity, family ties and a strong sense of place, Ms. Lynn offers an antidote to the suburban rootlessness endemic to the contemporary country charts with a comeback album that rivals “American Recordings,” Johnny Cash’s epochal 1994 effort.
Ms. Lynn, a gutsy, righteous and fearless female voice in an age when the music industry was tightly controlled by men, revolutionized country music during the 1960s and 1970s. Her string of 50-plus top-10 singles rivals virtually anyone, while the turbulent subject matter of hits like “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Fist City,” and “The Pill” staked out fiercely independent sexual and emotional terrain.
On “Van Lear Rose,” Ms. Lynn belatedly expands on the social conundrums raised in her earlier work. In one of the album’s most indelible tunes, “Family Tree,” she follows a trail of infidelity, babies in tow, to confront her cheating husband. When his lover answers the door, Ms. Lynn’s scorn reaches a pitiful but defiant apotheosis: “I wouldn’t dirty my hands on trash like you,” she sings. “Women’s Prison” is even more stark, but this time the bullets fly. In it, she guns down her conniving paramour in a barroom, her death sentence carried out amid the uncontrollable sobs of her mother.
But not everything on “Van Lear Rose” carries the weight of the world. The bouncy “High on a Mountain Top” sings the simple virtues of country living, while the album’s title song, sporting a most beguiling melody, encompasses the kind of country reminiscence that blurs personal narrative into folktale.
Ms. Lynn’s choice of producer, Jack White, the principal singer and writer behind indie-rock darlings the White Stripes, is unconventional. Approaching the project with a gleeful disdain for the cookie-cutter methods of making records nowadays, not to mention a belief in the virtue of first takes that would be anathema to Owen Bradley (Ms. Lynn’s hitmaking producer), Mr. White takes chances.
A Lynn/White duet, “Portland Oregon,” pulses with odd merriment, a prime example of the musical chemistry in evidence: “Well Portland Oregon and sloe gin fizz/If that ain’t love then tell me what is,” goes Ms. Lynn’s sassy vocal. It sports an arrangement more akin to 1960s garage rock than the Nashville Sound.
In fact, Mr. White’s production (along with the raw musicianship of a makeshift band called the Do Whaters) frames the songs in disparate ways, edging Ms. Lynn into blues, spoken word, honky-tonk, bluegrass and, yes, rock ‘n’ roll. Not everything works to perfection: The arty, mumbled arrangement of “Little Red Shoes” unnecessarily obscures its narrative, while the hard-rock power-trio angle of “Have Mercy” forces Ms. Lynn out of her emotional timbre.
The artistic gambles, though, are part of the album’s charm, and “Van Lear Rose’s” looseness and off-the-cuff spontaneity, dismally lacking in today’s technology- and money-driven recording industry, make Loretta Lynn’s entirely unexpected comeback a rousing success.