It’s too seldom that a record can wreck your head. Too uncommon for a record, on first listen, to obliterate your prejudices and reach for the throat, to make everything that seemed so good yesterday seem just all right today. At best a person can only hope one or two of those a year. For 2004 the pickings seemed pretty slim until the moment I was half-cocktailed, riding shotgun in a car down I-75 and the driver put in Van Lear Rose.
The collaboration between Jack White and Loretta Lynn is, at first glance, a two-ring clown show. The back cover, on which our pasty scene boss gazes lustfully at the eerily face-lifted coal miner’s daughter, is creepy as all get out, makes Van Lear Rose come off as a tacky stunt to rescue Lynn from the casino circuit and get Jack a real drummer (the Greenhornes’ faultless Patrick Keeler).
But as soon as the needle drops, you forget about what it looks like. By the sound of the first eight bars it’s pretty obvious that Van Leer Rose is one of this year’s stone-cold classics. From the ’70s slick-country of the title track to the (White Striped) guitar power of “Women’s Prison,” there isn’t a single bummer track. This is the first record in Lynn’s career where she wrote every tune, and the band behind her — White on guitar, Keeler on drums and Blanche-American Mars’ Dave Feeny on pedal steel — seems like her band. They follow her like a shadow.
Those tunes unfurl her life’s story like a vital scroll: from the unbearably impoverished childhood of “Little Red Shoes” to the redemptive grace of “God Makes No Mistakes.” Everything in between is a world saturated in emotional colors — be they shades of hatred or joy, deliverance or depravity. At the greatest moments (and there are many), it’s a world that is bafflingly more vivid than the one in red and white.
E-mail Nate Cavalieri at firstname.lastname@example.org.