A protest album for today with the hope of a gospel song.
It is eight years since Iris DeMent released her last album, and ‘Workin’ On A World’ is only her seventh album in a thirty-year career. However, this lack of quantity does not reflect any lack of quality in her recorded work that mixes country, folk, and the gospel influence of her youth, into a unique style to deliver excellent songwriting and performances. While she released ‘The Trackless Woods’ in 2015 it comprised Anna Akhmatova’s poetry set to Iris DeMent’s melodies, therefore it is ten years since the world has been able to hear a new set of her songs. Iris DeMent’s gospel influences help bring a unique character to her sound they can also lead to a tougher sound in some of her arrangements, and that is the case with ‘Workin’ On A World’ which could be seen as a sequel to 1996’s ‘The Way I Should’. Some of the songs were written and sometimes recorded before and during the pandemic with producer Jim Rooney before they were pulled together in their final form with producers step-daughter Pieta Brown and Richard Bennett. This long gestation period has meant the DeMent was able to concentrate on the songs for their own sake, and they came together in what could be described as a modern-day protest album.
Album opener and title track ‘Workin’ On A World’ uses piano and the spirit of gospel music to accompany Iris DeMent’s acceptance that she will not see the benefit of current activist activities due to her age, with horns and Richard Bennett’s guitar to the fore as the song builds. Iris DeMent has previously recorded with Delbert McClinton and we are in Texas roadhouse territory on ‘Going Down To Sing In Texas’ which looks at the current problem of gun ownership and use. The album quietens down with the ballad ‘Say A Good Word’ which reflects on past times before the co-write with Pieta Brown, ‘The Sacred Now’, reminds everyone that whatever people’s differences, we all share this life together. ‘I Won’t Ask You Why’ is another co-write with Pieta Brown that examines death and shows that DeMent’s voice has lost none of its ability over the years. Past activists John Lewis and Rachael Corrie are remembered on ‘Warriors of Love’. DeMent’s husband Greg Brown wrote the lyrics for ‘Let Me Be Your Jesus’ which look at white supremacy. The breadth of what DeMent covers on ‘Workin’ On A World’ is shown by ‘The Cherry Garden’ which references Chekhov, which may not be such a stretch when you consider DeMent’s adopted daughter is of Russian descent. Iris DeMent’s gospel roots and piano playing are really on show in her Mahalia Jackson-inspired celebration ‘Mahalia’. Martin Luther King inspires the hopeful ‘How Long’. The last song is a cover of her husband’s ‘Waycross, Georgia’ which looks at the end of life’s journey, and not only reflects DeMent’s stage in life, it is also a fitting end for the album.
Iris Dement may not have originally planned to record ‘Workin’ On A World’ when she started working on its songs, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a cohesive whole, and while a protest album, it also manages to be hopeful as well. Iris DeMent may now have turned sixty, but her political antenna and activist sensibility haven’t dimmed they have simply been better honed. While ‘Workin’ On A World’ may include DeMent’s best characteristics it doesn’t mean it is simply a repeat of past success, it is a fitting album for the post-pandemic modern world. As DeMent says herself, these songs now need to go out into the world to do the job they were created for.