EXPLORING THE BEAUTY OF IRIS DEMENT'S 'SING THE DELTA' To hear Iris DeMent is to be moved. She sings so close to her emotions-and with such artistry-that her meanings can be understood even if the lyrics are soaked in Southern and Midwestern dialect. Her new albumSing the Deltaevokes experience and wonder-life, death and very complicated faith. Its great achievement inspires this specialCityArtsseries. Seven writers reflect on tracks fromSing the Delta, responding to DeMent's art of struggle. An Arkansas native, DeMent pays cultural homage like a good folkie, but she's also in one-accord with the devotion that defined her family heritage. This album follows DeMent's 2004 Lifeline, a hymnal of gospel favorites plus her remarkable original composition "He Reached Down," which followed the discipline of old-timey gospel well enough to stand next to the Old Landmarks. Professing faith gives that song its despairing-and-yearning strength that empowers DeMent's singing.Lifelineshowcased "art songs" (a value rarely conferred upon sacred effort in this secular age) but it also expressed DeMent's personal need to align love of family with life's hard truths.
"This is what holds me together!" said the gum-smacking waitress played by Southerner Diane Ladd in Martin Scorsese'sAlice Doesn't Live Here Anymoreas she held a crucifix pendant made of safety pins. That's the image I get when recalling DeMent's "If That Ain't Love," her "Daddy worked at the Movieland Wax Musuem" song that describes her personal world?a life enclosed by her working-class father's daily prayers and the cultural example of Aretha Franklin singing "Precious Lord, take my hand." Every incident told on this album happens within those perimeters, each song testifying how DeMent is held together.
Sing the Deltacontinues that deep authenticity with even finer musicality. It embarrasses just about everything surrounding it at this moment in pop culture. So few songs, movies, TV shows and books are about anything people actually, commonly feel that DeMent's honesty reveals how trivial most pop culture has become. Her fidelity to religious tradition-and her conflicts-create a tough new personal gospel. On the gently, devastatingly sung family saga "Out of the Fire" (Sing the Delta's closing track,), DeMent muses on matters large and small: "Does one matter more, does one matter less/ Who of us can say?" This nostalgic reverie, with remembered details as all-encompassing as Scripture, goes through your soul like no other track. Both humbling and soul-satisfying, it's Communion. DeMent's bold admission of spiritual struggle wins back the consciousness so horribly deceived in our increasingly godless era of quotidian blasphemies and dark agnosticism.Sing the Deltafinds true courage and true poetry. This earthly life is defined in terms DeMent takes from her troubled, gospel-informed meditation on the next life. Seeking answers, she makes singing synonymous with praying.
Critic Gregory Solman first introduced me to DeMent back when her 2003 song "Let the Mystery Be" appeared on the soundtrack of Bertolucci's Little Buddha, confirming her talent and ecumenical depth. Sing the Delta extends the philosophy expressed in "Let the Mystery Be" but with the subsequent wisdom of age.
DeMent grappled with political uncertainties onThe Way I Should(1996? and received her best reviews as critics claimed her for the political moment. OnSing the Delta(blessedly not about Hurricane Katrina but a symbolic tributary and site of cultural confluence), DeMent refuses to limit her feelings to social trendiness. A wag on YouTube who complained "I wish Iris loved Jesus as much as she loved singing songs about Jesus" missed the point.Sing the Deltashows inescapable devotion to the way of the Lord. It's so deeply bred within her (a lifeline) that even when she pays homage to Aretha Franklin ("The Kingdom Has Already Come," "If That Ain't Love"), the musical and emotional fervor transcend mere deference. Because DeMent's art is genuine, she dares the non-believers to stay that way.
"Go On Ahead and Go Home"
An uplifting lament fashioned as a gospel number, "Go On Ahead and Go Home" makes for a lovely American addition to the crossing-over genre that flows from Hank Williams' "Going Home," a river of song wide enough to engulf Roy Orbison's "Coming Home," Van Morrison's "Carrickfergus" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," to cite one unlikely confluence. With a characteristic sincerity and the right measure of sobriety, DeMent implores a soul, "Go let your mama see you smile," brightly conflating the family ancestry awaiting the boy's arrival and the mother "standing in the sun" (a reference to Mary being clothed by the sun in the Book of the Apocalypse), both of whom comfort the soul whose "work's been done by a long, long mile." DeMent styles the number with Pentecostal piano, a Hammond B-3 organ held for a final chorus swell, and guitar with a touch of reverb (in contrast to the plaintive pedal-steel whine of the "Before the Colors Fade," sort of her version of Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay"). Here the mellifluous sliding comes between the personal/spiritual, the natural/eternal-the vernal Southern imagery of cotton fields, blue hydrangeas, mare's stall and baptismal healing-waters ("By the river so still, where sorrows come to heal/And wrongs are made right")-making it an ideal prelude to her stirring child's resigning of faith to fate in "The Night I Learned Not to Pray." Classic form, invigorating metaphor. -Gregory Solman