“The Dream”, an exceptional new album by Iowa songwriter Hailey Whitters, is full of great country songs, starting with “Ten Year Town”, a lullaby to the cruelty of the Nashville star machine. At first listen, you will probably agree with Whitters that, yes, the world of music is a fickle dream crusher. On your 10th rotation, the whole notion of country celebrity is humiliating and absurd. “Fifteen minutes of glory” sings Whitters during the chorus, his exhaustion cuddling with disgust. “Someone says your name on television or [on the] back of a CD. “In other words, sing your truest truth, and instead of being immortalized, you could get a cry on a dying media format.
A few lines later, Whitters deplores Nashville’s “it girl” marketing strategies, but here, the irritation in his words immediately disintegrates under the distress of his voice. Whitters is the “it girl” now, and she knows it. Success looks like failure. Up feels like down. The beginning looks like the end. Literally: at this point, we are about 90 seconds in the album.
This exquisite and paradoxical energy rarely leaves aside “The Dream”, an album where anger, joy, disappointment and fulfillment are never really what they seem. Take “Red Wine & Blue”, an exploded ballad with a titular chorus that forces Whitters to defuse a bad pun like a bomb. “I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go,” she admits, trailing in shame behind the rhythm, “getting drunk in the afternoon, red and blue wine”. Is she disgusted with her punchline, herself or her country? Take her pun at face value and she compares her romantic ruin to the collapse of an empire. It may sound melodramatic on paper, but its delivery makes her numb and helpless, her painful heart in tune with the national mood.
Whitters is aware of how she sings her words and where she sings them too. They fall from her mouth in atypical drafts on “Loose Strings”, a sulkiness in the morning where her dizzy phrasing evokes the disorderly love story she describes. After an argument soaked in whiskey and tequila, her man throws his car keys in her yard so that she doesn’t go home drunk. “So I came home alone,” sings Whitters, each syllable landing like a flickering step. When she reaches the bridge, she closes her eyes and lets the music tell the story: the guitars start playing backwards, like underlying memories that come back to her mind.
Whitters’ brightest musical ideas may make his vision of the dark world appear, but that’s not the case. If anything, his subtle skepticism prevents his more optimistic songs from turning into bad YOLO poetry. Two of the album’s most daring tracks – “The Days” and “Janice at the Hotel Bar” – are bursting with carp diem life hacks sung with melodic discretion. The message is that life is precious. The subtext is that life ends.
“Happy People”, a sunny melody with scattered clouds on the continuation of the golden rule, was originally co-written with Lori McKenna for Little Big Town, and is resumed on “The Dream” because it was to be heard. The most radiant moment of the song comes during the hook, when Whitters shows us how to sing a comma. Do “whatever makes you happy, people,” she says, allowing this ghost punctuation to communicate a whirlwind of alienation and impossible and intensifying hope. Society is teeming with holes, but wouldn’t it be nice if they could learn to love each other, let alone talk to each other?
There is so much meaning in this insignificant little break. This is proof that Whitters knows how to extract the maximum of existential truth from words, sounds and the nothingness that surrounds them.