Iris DeMent sings and plays the piano, often in the style someone once called church-house ragtime. For the most part she’s drawn to styles that predate country, rock and roll, and even Broadway pop; old white gospel is the big one. She insistently pares her tunes down to a minimalist familiarity that focuses the listener’s attention on the lyrics. And what lyrics they are! Though made to match the simple structures, in some passages they read like poetry.
DeMent’s new album, Sing the Delta, is her first of original material in sixteen years–a notable thing in itself. In between, she issued an album of traditional hymns, which she performed at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival a few years back–after announcing that she wasn’t really sure she believed in God. It was an unsatisfying contradiction, but DeMent unpacks it a bit on the new album. She has always kept her Pentecostal upbringing at arm’s length while at the same time acknowledging its power, and in one of her finest songs she urged her hearers, regarding the afterlife, to “let the mystery be.” This time around, she addresses religion head-on in three songs: “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” and “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” where she sings, “you can take your streets of gold if you want ’em, and your mansion so dear, but I’ll take the whole lotta heaven shinin’ in this river of tears.”
Elsewhere DeMent sings of parents, a flower, the comforts of home. Such venerable themes also formed the center of her earlier music, but now there’s a new concreteness and depth to the imagery. “Before the Colors Fade” depicts, in homely but hard-to-shake language, the act of remembering and thinking about someone who has recently died. The album’s title track (“Sing the Delta … a love song for me”) is a hymn to DeMent’s birthplace–Paragould, Arkansas, “where my people on both sides going back eked out a livin’ fillin’ cotton sacks.” More than previously, DeMent aims this time for big themes, albeit in small things, and timeless words. “Go on ahead and go home,” she sings on the album’s gospel-tinged opening song. “Boy, you’ve done your best, time you took your rest in the sheltering loam.”
DeMent has always been more of a critical than a popular favorite. Her voice is almost an exaggeration of a traditional Southern ballad style, which she refuses to sweeten in any way. It’s an acquired taste, but it, too, forces you through to the remarkable lyrics, which repay close attention and aren’t like anything else out there.
Iris DeMent makes her first appearance at the Ark in many years on November 17.