It’s been an interminable twelve years since we last heard from Loretta Lynn. Her most recent release, 2004’s Van Lear Rose, was a collaboration with alternative rocker Jack White that was beloved by music critics at large but panned by many country purists for its heavy “garage punk” production. Personally, I’m firmly in the “love it” camp, but I can understand how such an adventurous, genre-bending album wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Thankfully, no such caveats are necessary for 2016’s Full Circle, on which Lynn returns to her Kentucky roots and delivers a fine album that stands up to the great records she put out throughout the ’60s and ’70s. And if you’re wondering how Lynn’s voice is holding up at age eighty-three, you needn’t worry – it’s barely aged a day.
While Full Circle isn’t a concept album in the strict sense that it contains a continuing story, there’s undoubtedly a thematic undercurrent throughout the album of Lynn looking back at her life and contemplating her mortality. The album begins with Lynn reprising “Whispering Sea”, the first song she ever wrote when she signed her record deal, and ends with “Lay Me Down”, a stunning duet with Willie Nelson that has the two legends pondering the inevitable day on which they have to leave this world. In-between, Lynn revisits traditional folk tunes she grew up on, covers a few songs she loves that other artists had hits with, and even rerecords a few of her old hits just for the heck of it. The entire album feels like a encapsulation of Lynn’s entire life journey and of everything coming full circle, as the title suggests. This is not to suggest the album is an entirely somber affair as there are plenty of lighthearted moments, but it’s clear that Lynn probably expects this to be one of her last albums (if not the last).
Covers comprise the majority of Full Circle, but there are a couple of brand new originals that prove Loretta hasn’t lost any of her songwriting ability. “Everything it Takes”, which Lynn co-wrote with alt-country critical favorite Todd Snider, is an absolute delight, with fresh, witty lyrics that recalls Lynn in her songwriting prime. It takes a classic country theme (a narrator attempting to convince her partner not to leave her for another woman who may or may not be trustworthy) but expresses it in a new, clever way. It’s my favorite track here, and would probably would be a country standard if it was written during the Golden Age. The other original, the uptempo “Who’s Gonna Miss Me” has an old-time feel and is irresistibly catchy while offering some thought-provoking lyrics.
I’ve long felt that it was a crime that country radio ignored T. Graham Brown’s outstanding “Wine Into Water”, and Loretta smartly revives it here, giving a second life to a genuinely great song that not enough people know about. The original suffered slightly from a bit of late ’90s polish, but Lynn delivers a version here that is starker and understated, more befitting the lyric of a desperate alcoholic who has no one to turn to but God. Similarly successful are her covers of the pop standards “Secret Love” and “Band of Gold.” And while I’ve never regarded the music Willie Nelson produced during his short flirtation with pop music stardom in the early ’80s as among his best work, I forgot how great of a lyric “Always on My Mind” is, and Lynn’s reading of it here is extremely enjoyable.
Loretta covers two songs written by country music founding father A.P. Carter: “Black Jack David”, a seemingly simple tune that ends with a surprising twist, and “I Will Never Marry”, a tale of a scorned woman who commits suicide by throwing herself into the ocean. Both of these tracks are excellent, as is a reading of the traditional folk tune “In The Pines”, which has been recorded by numerous folk and bluegrass artists.
In addition to “Whispering Sea”, Loretta remakes two more of her old songs: the 1968 smash hit “First City” and 1965’s “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, a cut from the gospel album Hymns. “Whispering Sea” and “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, a B-side and album cut respectively, are both a bit obscure and I’m glad Lynn has reintroduced them here, but the rerecording of “Fist City” – a song anyone even remotely interested in Lynn’s music probably already knows – feels a bit unnecessary. I can’t find any fault with the performance – Loretta’s still got “it” at age eighty-three – but frankly I’d rather have something more novel in its place. I’m engaging in pure nitpicking here, though.
Full Circle is an immensely satisfying release from one of the greatest country artists to ever live. Despite being mostly made up of songs written by other artists, this feels like an extremely personal album for Lynn, and it leaves the listener feeling like they’ve gotten to know her just a bit better as an artist and a person – who she is, what she’s done, and where she’s going. The songs are uniformly high-quality, and Lynn, not content to coast, delivers performances that compare to those from when she was fifty years younger. This is a highly worthwhile addition to her already legendary discography.
Grade: 3.5 out of 4 flags