9/10• There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven
• Mornin’ Glory
• Go On Ahead & Go Home
• Out Of The Fire
• Before The Colors Fade
• The Kingdom Has Already Come
• The Night I Learned How Not To Pray
• Sing The Delta
• If That Ain’t Love
• Makin’ My Way Back Home
• Livin’ On The Inside
• Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth “It’s sure been a while,” drawls the unmistakable, soul-stirring voice of Iris DeMent on ‘Go Ahead & Go Home’, the brisk, buoyant opening track to her (very) long-awaited new album Sing The Delta. The listener can only nod in agreement at this statement. It’s been, in fact, eight years since DeMent’s last record, the lovely gospel album Lifeline, and a whopping sixteen since the release of her last album of all-original material, 1996’s The Way I Should. These long gaps between releases could have turned DeMent into the Kate Bush of country, had she not kept up a pretty consistent touring schedule, maintaining contact with her audience and occasionally debuting new material in concert. Some of those songs now find their way on to Sing The Delta, alongside more recently composed tracks.
The rather protracted gestation of the album means that it can’t boast the cohesion of her 1992 debut Infamous Angel or 1994′s My Life, and doesn’t quite match either of those masterpieces for sustained impact. Still, it’s a beautiful, heartfelt piece of work, and one that features several songs so good they’ve been worth waiting sixteen years for. Sonically, Sing The Delta is warm and inviting but never cloying: it expands DeMent’s palette subtly and sympathetically without the jarring flourishes that marred The Way I Should. There’s no fiddle, hardly any harmony parts, a little less twang, more swing and sway. Sparsely employed horns and organ, as well as some fine guitar work from Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett, add texture. Front and centre, though, is DeMent’s simple, elegant, churchy piano playing, which provides intimate, apt accompaniment for her stories of family, loss, homecoming and endurance.
From Infamous Angel’s opening track ‘Let The Mystery Be’ onwards there has been a kind of stealth subversiveness to DeMent’s best songs, which have often approached classic country subject matter with a gently questioning, questing contemporary spirit. That approach is continued on Sing The Delta. The album’s most overt love song is its title track, an embracing, languid homage to DeMent’s roots that appears to take the form of an address to her stepdaughter Pieta Brown and finds the narrator musing on her deep connection to the land that she and her family left so long ago: “It’s the link which my spirit understands.”
Throughout the record, DeMent remains concerned with the role that memory plays in our lives, how we make sense of our past and our losses, and how reminiscence can serve as a source of strength and inspiration. The plaintive yet resolute ‘Before The Colors Fade’ resolves to keep an absent loved one present, through recollection, for as long as it is possible. ‘If That Ain’t Love’ finds strength in the belated recognition of a father’s prayers and the sound of a favourite singer’s voice coming out of the radio. ‘Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth’, meanwhile, is a bracingly honest addition to DeMent’s catalogue of songs about her parents, recalling with mingled amusement, frustration and admiration her mother’s inability to dissemble. “Right there in that little house there was a bigger world than I may ever see,” DeMent sings, a line that nicely encapsulates the ability of her work to locate the macrocosm in the microcosm and to spin very specific details into songs that connect intimately with the listener’s own experience.
For all their turning away from the less palatable aspects of religious dogma, DeMent’s songs also remain soaked in religious imagery and fully alert both to its uses and its need for subversion. A counter to the my-real-home-is-in-the-next-world-and-I-can’t-wait-to-get-there sentiments of a hymn like ‘I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted To This World’ – itself delivered by DeMent with exceptional defiance and spark on Lifeline – ‘There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven’ finds the narrator placing faith in “the love we carry in our souls” rather than in hopes of glory in the afterlife. A more potent expression of the theme comes earlier, though, on the exquisite ‘The Kingdom Has Already Come’, which opens with DeMent’s narrator seeking solace in a church (“though I don’t even know if I believe in God”), before finding expressions of divinity manifested in the everyday. DeMent’s delivery in the choruses turns the song’s title from tremulous inquiry to ecstatic revelation.
A couple of songs feel underworked by comparison, notably the anti-introspection ballad ‘Livin’ On The Inside’ and ‘The Night I Learned How Not To Pray’, both of which would benefit from another verse or two. The latter track seems to me the most problematic song here. While deftly avoiding self-pity as it recounts the narrator’s memory of her brother’s death despite her fervent prayers to God to save him, the perky arrangement seems at odds with the subject matter, though the shuddering moan that DeMent unleashes at the end just about saves it. Indeed, even on some of the less distinguished tracks, DeMent’s voice remains a source of wonder and fascination, seemingly having only gained new colours and contours over the years.
Hearing her voice, I’m always reminded of the description of a character’s singing in Iris Murdoch’s ‘Under The Net’: “she seems to throw the song into your heart.” DeMent’s singing achieves just that kind of full-on intimacy and immediacy. Her voice can be a sob, a snap, a sigh, a croak, a gurgle; it can sound agelessly old or girlishly fresh. Always it’s filled with pure emotion. Her diction is rather muddier here than before, the stretched and swallowed syllables adding a level of mystery to some of these songs, complicating quotidian images. There’s also a new sultriness. “I feel desire,” DeMent sings on ‘The Kingdom Has Already Come’ and damned if the line doesn’t come out sounding like “I feel these arms.”
DeMent’s diction reaches an apex of obscurity on Sing The Delta’s outstanding finale, ‘Out Of The Fire’, an eight-minute emotional epic that builds slowly through memories and associations, its various images – a truck ride with her grandfather, the aftermath of a revival meeting – gradually achieving clarity through repeated listens, like a blurry film coming into focus. The song pushes DeMent’s writing into a much more abstract zone than ever, but the final image of rebirth and homecoming rings as clear as a bell from the first listen as DeMent wrests a redemptive flourish out of a moment of absolute emotional desolation. It’s a staggering conclusion, and one of her finest-ever achievements on record.
Despite its scepticism about aspects of conventional belief, Sing The Delta is an intensely spiritual experience. The songs show the listener how to pray: through memories of people and places, through quiet reflection, through careful, loving attention in the here and now. Across the record, DeMent seeks – and finds – “links that … [our] spirits understand.” It’s absolutely wonderful to have her back.
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