January 13, 2013
Even long-time readers of Country Universe could be forgiven for getting to #2 on our Top Country Albums of 2012 list and wondering, “Who on earth is Iris DeMent?”
Iris DeMent came out of nowhere in 1992 with a stunning debut album, Infamous Angel, that received rapturous critical acclaim. The general consensus was that it heralded the arrival of a new singer-songwriter for the ages.
Two years later, My Life only strengthened that sentiment, and DeMent was widely seen as a critical voice in what would eventually become known as the Americana music genre.
Then, in 1996, she returned with a slightly more commercial sound with the remarkably political album, The Way I Should. Reviews were a bit mixed, though in retrospect that may have been more because of its sonic departure from the first two albums than any issues with the topical content.
Then…she kinda disappeared. Not completely, in the sense that she still surfaced on collaborative efforts, most notably her work in 1999 on John Prine’s album, In Spite of Ourselves. She even starred in the movie Songcatcher, playing Rose Gentry in that 2000 film. But after releasing full albums of her own songwriting like clockwork every two years, the clock simply stopped. In fact, the only album she released at all before 2012 was a collection of gospel covers in 2004.
So the release of Sing the Delta was as much an introduction to Iris DeMent for 21st century fans of country, folk and roots music as it was a long overdue return that was patiently awaited by those of us who loved her the first time around. Delta is very similar in sound and structure to her first two albums, so those who are digging the new set should check those out first. They’re both essential listening.
But I’ve decided to be a bit more democratic and showcase exactly two tracks from each of her first three albums. In truth, if you like any of these selections, you should probably go ahead and just buy all three albums.
“Let the Mystery Be” – from the 1992 album Infamous Angel
The opening track of her debut set establishes her point of view immediately, and feels like the blueprint for all of her most multi-layered songs. What I love about this song is that she claims to be surrendering to the mystery of religious truth, which suggests a passive approach to matters of faith.
But her keen attention to all of the details found in both God’s creation and different religious beliefs around the world belie that indifference. Perhaps she doesn’t want to let the mystery be so much as she doesn’t want to lose the thrill of discovery and questioning that is sacrificed when you settle on just one essential truth.
“Our Town” – from the 1992 album Infamous Angel
A moving eulogy to a dying small town. Her mourning for the little community in which she chose to remain is also a bit of mourning for her own life choices, as she sees every major and quite a few minor life moments have taken place within the borders of one little dot on the map.
“No Time to Cry” – from the 1994 album My Life
This masterpiece has been covered by both Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols, but even their fine readings can’t approach the raw power of DeMent’s original. Even the most sensitive child grows up to be a thick-skinned adult simply because of the mundane daily expectations that life places upon us with such bewildering urgency. Those feelings remain buried deep below the surface, and as DeMent eloquently demonstrates, it is incredibly dangerous to engage them at all, lest they refuse to return to the distant inner hole to which they’ve been banished with time.
“Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day” – from the 1994 album My Life
Budding sociologists looking for pop culture windows into the isolation and frustration of working-class middle Americans in the 1990s should pick up the first few seasons of Roseanne on DVD, then download this Mp3 and listen to it on repeat. Even when all the rules are followed and all of the basic needs are met, the happiness that comes with full realization of your true worth and talent remains forever elusive.
“Wasteland of the Free” –
from the 1996 album The Way I Should
A stunning polemic that is perhaps most notable for being written during a period of relative peace and prosperity. DeMent noticed the troubles borne of inequity and inequality that were brewing under the surface and have since boiled over in recent years. She points the finger at all of the right culprits, too.
“The Way I Should” – from the 1996 album The Way I Should
A statement of self-worth that perhaps foreshadowed her decision to simply not record another album until she wanted to. Here, she defeats the voices whispering in her ear to work harder and meet some unreachable standard of success. She does so by rejecting the very metrics of measurement as completely invalid.