Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
From The Smiths to Nirvana, much of the best pop and rock music has been made by fans. Contrary to the High Fidelity stereotype, not all fans are mere peddlers of trivia. Some are true believers in music whose passion is so deep and thorough that they come to inhabit their idols.
Successful fanboys often make good on the fantasies of their adolescence—Kurt Cobain convinced Geffen to ink a deal with post-punkers the Raincoats; Morrissey recently reformed the remaining New York Dolls—but few can claim to have made a meaningful impact on their icons’ art.
With Loretta Lynn’s new album, Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White, the White Stripes maestro has not only revived the coal miner’s daughter’s long-flagging career. He has also made a darkly compelling masterpiece that taps into the pitch-black id of Johnny Cash’s best records. But where Cash’s vision is end-to-end apocalyptic, Lynn’s sensibility follows more unpredictable routes to the void. On “God Makes No Mistakes,” Lynn sings not about life’s perfections but its cruelties, like a “little baby born twisted and out of shape.” “Family Tree” casts infidelity’s consequences in a surprising metaphor, as a “woman burning down our family tree.”
White and Lynn smartly cloak these bleak sentiments in light, airy, Appalachian-style music; the steel guitars soothe as Lynn’s lyrics unnerve. And the production techniques White honed with the White Stripes—leaving the vocals unvarnished, keeping rough edges like the rustle of a snare or a bass that’s so low it distorts—bring Van Lear Rose to vivid life.
Van Lear Rose is also a testament to White’s restraint: Only one song (“Have Mercy”) sounds like the White Stripes, and it’s done brilliantly. Set to industrial-like clatter-and-crash, the romantic longing of “Have Mercy” comes unhinged.
Moves like this should quiet the misguided talk that White is a pure, uncritical rock revivalist. As even Courtney Love now realizes (she suggested to Rolling Stone recently that White reminds her of her late husband), Jack White is the most preternaturally gifted pop star since Kurt Cobain. And like the late Nirvana singer and guitarist, White, who is equal parts missionary and empathetic critic, embodies the fan at his best. Every rock star should have a Jack White to love her.