A pretty terrific effort by just about any objective standard, Patty Loveless’s Mountain Soul II is still something of a letdown, if only because it has the misfortune of having been billed as a sequel to what is perhaps the finest, most thematically rich album of the last decade. While the concept of recording a follow-up to a landmark record that blended bluegrass, contemporary country, and traditional Southern gospel might seem like a can’t-miss proposition for an artist as reliable as Loveless (indeed, it’s something that her fans have been clamoring for since 2001), the actual product itself reveals exactly what makes the first Mountain Soul one of those rare, lightning-in-a-bottle accomplishments.
Opening with a version of Harlan Howard’s “Busted” that restores the song’s original lyrics about a coalmine that no longer provides for its community, II starts off with the promise that it may show the same depth of insight into the Eastern Kentucky mining towns of Loveless’s childhood. “Busted” is the album’s most compelling cut by far, and it’s a shame that it exists nearly in isolation, with only one other song (“Handful of Dust”) that details both the struggle and the dignity fostered by this region of rural Appalachia. Instead, the record is primarily filled with more standard country tropes on songs like “Half Over You” and “You Burned the Bridge.” They’re fine enough songs, but they aren’t necessarily any better or worse than the material found on some of Loveless’s mid-‘90s records. Only “Handful of Dust,” with its unconventional melody, and the folk-leaning ballad “Bramble and the Rose” truly stand out. But even the best of the songs fail to connect into any broader, more meaningful themes.
On the first Mountain Soul, Loveless’s choice of gospel standards all explored the notion that diligence and service to the Lord may not be rewarded on Earth but would reap everlasting benefits. Here, the gospel cuts are no less spirited (her reading of “Working on a Building” is first-rate, and her performance on Emmylou Harris’s “Diamond in my Crown” is among the most soulful of her career), but the content of the songs is more scattered. These hymns all fall right into Loveless’s considerable wheelhouse, and the acoustic instrumentation is a good fit for the songs; the songs just don’t necessarily fit together.
Again, it’s a matter of thematic focus. There’s no faulting Loveless’s performances—well, with the exception of the a cappella “(We Are All) Children of Abraham,” on which she noticeably goes flat on some notes in her lower register—or her husband and longtime producer Emory Gordy Jr.‘s arrangements, at least not in a technical sense. The problem is that, in addition to the somewhat disjointed selection of songs, there’s just no risk here. Having already proven how natural she sounds in a stripped-down context and singing this kind of material, it almost feels like much of II was a phoned-in effort. It’s still a beautifully crafted, expertly performed record (and certainly a standout in what has been a pretty wretched year for country music), but the scope and thoughtfulness that made Mountain Soul such a treasure are absent. While it may not be entirely fair to hold II to that standard, it was ultimately Loveless and her team who invited the comparison.