AmericanA to Z – Iris DeMent

When the current vinyl revival started and I switched from CD to once again buying vinyl records, one thing I swore that I wouldn’t do, was to re-purchase my CD collection as titles were inevitably re-issued on vinyl.  But then Iris DeMent’s 1992 debut ‘Infamous Angel’ was re-issued on vinyl and in true country style, promises made, became promises broken.

Included in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘Essential Albums of the 1990s’ DeMent’s debut release introduced a rare and genuine talent. From the very first moment that I heard it I was captivated and entranced.  The songs were simple but her distinct, earthy and honest voice enunciated clearly every word of the personal and introspective lyrics. It was a record that opened up its heart and invited the listener in. The result was so heartfelt and unfeigned that it almost felt intrusive and uncomfortable to be there, like you’d stumbled into someone’s personal conversation.

The follow-up album, 1994’s ‘My Life’ established that DeMent was to be no one-album wonder. In style and substance, it didn’t stray too far from the successful formula of ‘Infamous Angel’ and was nominated for a Grammy Award for ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’. By the time of its release, Iris DeMent was well established as an artist. Therefore it didn’t quite elicit quite the thrill and excitement of her debut, but in truth it was every bit as good.

DeMent’s third release ‘The Way I Should’ came out in 1996 and marked a change both in style; a more electric rock sound, and in content; more political than personal. It received both acclaim and criticism, in equal measure. While some baulked at these changes, others embraced them. Songs about war, sexual abuse, religion and corporate greed represented a brave shift in direction for a church raised, gospel singing traditionalist. The production is sometimes a bit overbearing, but the album also contains quieter piano ballads that are both strong in themselves and serve to dampen down the overall sound of the album.

It was to be eight years before another Iris DeMent album emerged. 2004’s ‘Lifeline’ was a collection of traditional hymns and gospel songs, plus one new original song. It was a return to her earliest roots as a young girl. During her eight years away DeMent went through a messy divorce, re-married to fellow songwriter Greg Brown and suffered some health problems. ‘Lifeline’ was an attempt to seek solace and redemption in her faith of old. After eight years it was great to have her back. However, despite some high points, the overall result was disappointing. Rather than quench the thirst for a new DeMent album, it had the effect of leaving fans feeling even more parched.

A further 8 years passed before 2012’s ‘Sing the Delta’ the first album of Iris DeMent original songs for sixteen years. It was a return to former glories; well-crafted songs about family, her struggle with faith and the Arkansas Delta from which it drew its title.  Her distinctive voice was still intact, and she sings in the same humble and unassuming manner of her first two albums. Hopes that this might herald a creative burst of energy were not to be realised though.

A relatively short three years elapsed before the release of ‘The Trackless Woods’ in 2015. Rather than more DeMent originals, the album was a collection of poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, set to music by DeMent. Any initial apprehension is quickly set aside on listening to it. Recorded live in the singers living room with sparse accompaniment, the poems are brought to life. DeMent’s singing gives voice to the words rather than smothering them and their beauty is fully exposed and revealed. Whilst on the face of it, not an obvious template for success, the album somehow works and is well worth investigating.

Not the most prolific of artists, but Iris DeMent has produced at least three genuine classic albums. Whenever talk turns to ‘all-time favourite albums’ for me ‘Infamous Angel’ is always part of the conversation. I was fortunate enough to see Iris DeMent live in her 1990s heyday and was genuinely moved by her performance. I still harbour the hope that she still has one more exceptional, original album in her, but even if that doesn’t come to fruition, she has already established an astonishing legacy.

The Career: Just six albums in 28 years. She has also appeared on albums by John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Tom Russell, Steve Earle and er… The Beautiful South.

Key releases: The first two albums ‘Infamous Angel’ and ‘My Life’ are bona fide classics. ‘The Way I Should’ also has its advocates.  You should also check out Iris DeMent’s contribution to the ‘Tulare Dust’ tribute to Merle Haggard. Her cover of ‘Big City’ was said to have reduced the great man to tears and to state that it was the best version of one of his songs that he’d ever heard.

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