Best Albums of 2012 Closeup: Iris DeMent - 'Sing the Delta'

I've been doing this writing-about-music thing for about eight years, so I guess I can now safely admit (without fear of completely derailing my career) that I really don't enjoy reviewing albums. Climbing behind a bullyhorn to praise or damn the work of an artist is not my cup of tea. I have very strong and emotionally entangled responses to music - I know what I like - but I have no idea what might resonate with any single other individual on the planet.

It's important to resonate with people. With someone. Most music resonates with someone

Besides, people should listen to the music which moves them. I don't want to deter anyone from listening to any music. Something which strikes me as pretentious copycat crap - because of the mood I'm in or the stage of life I'm in, what else has come through my review stack, or any other reason - might contain a single phrase which cuts straight to the core of someone else's emotional tumult, exposing them to some kind of sense that they're not alone and there's light in the world after all. It's not my place to tell anyone the way they express themselves is any more valid or important or beautiful than what someone else did. Anything anyone does to communicate from a place of truth and beauty is important if we want to progress toward a more peaceful and equitable world.

I believe music is one of the most important things we can do as human beings. Everyone should do it, or something like it, whenever they need to. 

So, don't get me wrong. I have a great affection - and somewhat obsession - for writing stories about people who make extraordinary music. I love highlighting the ways in which music's creation intersects with the way we change the world every day - in large and infinitely tiny ways. But criticism? Not so much, usually.

That said, I do criticism now and then when I'm asked, or when I'm told. And, because I'm a sucker for tradition and the celebration of individual effort, at the end of each year, I fall in line and come up with a list of albums which struck me as the most remarkable, effective, creative, provocative, et cetera, albums of the year. 

Because I almost never actually review music on this site, I thought I'd take a moment to delve deeply into some of the albums which have made my list this year, so I can hopefully serve my choices more than is possible by simply listing them and adding a video of one of the songs on the album (which is the way I usually deliver my year-end lists).

I'll be posting in the coming weeks with closeups on these albums - one at a time. Let's begin, shall we, with Iris DeMent's Sing the Delta. 

The song after which this album was titled is a song about longing for a certain time and place. The grass is greener, the water's bluer, the heartache more haunting, the love much truer in some place other than here. So, DeMent sings, "Sing the delta a love song for me." It's a song which encapsulates all the backward glances of having moved on from a place which was once home - a place which lives now in soft focus, in the rearview. But it's also a song about marriage and wanting what's best for another person, in spite of yourself. The woman who's singing is sending her lover off to pursue what he needs to pursue. She's recognizing that this wandering pursuit has been present in her whole life, from the Delta to wherever she sits when she's singing. 

It's a tribute. An ode. It's a beautiful, arresting song in itself.

 

But the fact that she used the title of that song to stand for the rest of the album, puts a different spin on things. These dozen songs, she seems to be declaring, are songs which have come from the Delta in one way or another. Stories of truth from a certain part of the country. It's probably the most folky album title of the year, but it also indicates an intimacy which is at once studious and intensely personal. 

If the Delta were to sing, it would sing songs about faith and doubt, love and loss, fire and darkness, dirt and sweat, and a "river of tears." Like the image on the cover of the disc indicates, these are songs which unfold behind screen doors in working class communities, where people are tired and strong and loving and linked with long, deep family roots. 

They're informed by memory - not so much nostalgia as just the haunting, unforgettable truths which once upon a time rocked our worlds. These songs can be taken on their own - and if DeMent spliced them into a set list next to "Our Town" and "Let the Mystery Be", they would make some kind of sense - but, in the context of an album aimed at the Delta, they tell a more complex story. 

Her chunky piano, slow and stumbling drums, a voice like clothes blowing on a line, like the dripping hot breeze itself...everything that happens sonically on this disc is leaning toward the southern Delta. It's not just a study of Delta music or traditional stories and ideas. It's literally the closest estimation humanly possible to how the Delta would make music if it could sing in a human voice. 

What makes this album stand out from so many of the other singer-songwriter albums released this year is that DeMent inhabits not just the songs or the stories or the lyrics, but the complete foundational image of the album. I hear artists who write honest songs that spill the beans or recall stories of their past, or explore the sounds of life around them. But they take those tasks one at a time, hoping the effort pulls together in the end for some estimation of continuity. DeMent crawls into the body of the music and looks out through the eyes of the songs, speaks with the language and inflection of the landscape. The difference is embodiment. 

DeMent has been singing from this spirit for her whole career, but I got the feeling she had been eyeing and circling that skin for years; on this album, she discovered the way to crawl inside it. A less developed artist might "Sing the Songs of the Delta" or "Sing About the Delta." DeMent cuts the crap and just sings the delta. An exceptional effort. Listen to it now if you haven't yet, or turn it on again and hear the food cooking on the stove, the children yelling, and beyond all that, the river's persistent flow.

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Comment by Amos Perrine on November 24, 2012 at 10:13am
Could not agree more.
Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on November 24, 2012 at 11:07am

Despite yourself, Kim, you oughta do more reviewing even though you, liked me, bridle at the posture of traditional criticism.

You have a rather idealistic stance: “Anything anyone does to communicate from a place of truth and beauty is important if we want to progress toward a more peaceful and equitable world.”

But I think it's also important for writers to help the public sort out which artists seem to communicate from a place of truth and beauty. That can be very tricky especially when you have hierarchies of high, middlebrow and low art, where judgments can easily deter us from wherever that true art resides which, as I've said before on my blog, might be under any rock you turn over.

And your skill as a writer, as this appreciation shows, demonstrates how well you can cast sunlight on a true artist like Iris at her best, so she's not lost in the rock piles crunching under our feet.

You nail DeMent’s current POV with: “These songs can be taken on their own - and if DeMent spliced them into a set list next to "Our Town" and "Let the Mystery Be", they would make some kind of sense - but, in the context of an album aimed at the Delta, they tell a more complex story.”

She's working mightily to believe into the traditions that make each of our towns (and our Townes) authentically precious and maybe even universal. And of course, she struggles daily with faith in transcendence that gives those traditions a power that can be dark, complex and even evil.

But I think Iris also feels that if we sense that we share a power greater than our individual selves -- the power that is utterly manifest in nature and creativity -- then the mystery starts creeping back to us, as power that we can use for peace and equality. I think maybe it creeps back as the 100-proof moonshine you can smell in the rock you turn over and find true art.

That's when you hear her "singing the Delta" -- straight, 100 proof, no "ofs" or "abouts" about it.

How did the rock get soaked in that truthful essence? It may be right in the flowing river. But down there its also the artist, pressing underneath the weight of obscurity -- and each true song is obscure at birth -- like sweaty old Sisyphus.

I've actually written a whole book about voices in the river. So maybe there is a role for the sense of smell in criticism, which at its best is poetry. As I said about your last (red and blue state) blog post, the sense of smell may be our best truth detector.

Comment by Brendan Cooke on November 24, 2012 at 3:54pm

Kim just like to say that was a brilliant review of a lovely,moving album...will certainly be in my Best of 2012 list. As an aside from the actual music it's worth a mention too that  Iris's liner notes are also heartfelt and rather beautifully written.

Comment by Peter Thompson on November 27, 2012 at 6:03am

album of the year ,no doubt about it .

Comment by kj miller on November 27, 2012 at 6:52am

Well said.

Comment by Steve Ford on November 27, 2012 at 1:22pm

Thanks, Kim, for your marvelous review. Iris DeMent deserves it.

Sing The Delta is not my favorite Iris DeMent album, but it's my favorite album of 2012. Nothing else comes close.

Some of my otherwise sensible and musically knowledgeable friends can’t get past Iris DeMent's hillbilly sound. But those who love her singing love it with a passion. 

It’s all about a voice that gets you in the heart, every time. Her voice may not be as distinctive as, say, George Jones, or Nina Simone or Billie Holliday, but those are the sort of singers she brings to mind for me; people who seem permanently plugged into their deepest emotions. Singers who can convey heartbreak in a phrase, and leave you feeling languorously, exquisitely miserable.

And there is nary a love song - in the usual sense - in Iris DeMent's repertoire. 

Like many fans, I discovered Iris DeMent though the inclusion of Our Town in the final scene of Northern Exposure, a few years after the release of Infamous Angel. 

I got to see her a couple of years later, on Good Friday, 1998. It was an afternoon show at Bluesfest, and she played to a relatively small crowd in a cavernous tent. It was one of most memorable performances I have seen; Iris accompanying herself on guitar and piano, immersed completely in her music. She seemed startled and embarrassed by the thunderous applause at the end of each song. It wasn't so much a case of turning a large space into an intimate one; more like turning a tent into a church.

That was more than fourteen years ago and - remarkably - Sing The Delta is the first album of new material Iris DeMent has released  since that afternoon. (In fact, it's sixteen years since The Way I Should, the least well regarded of her albums.)

Worth the wait? Absolutely.

Sing the Delta doesn't have any songs that quite match the timeless eloquence of Our Town or the jaunty wit ofLet the Mystery Be, but it has a rare wholeness and quality (think Astral Weeks) that demands listening from beginning to end.

(If you'd like to read more about Iris DeMent, I highly recommend David Cantwell's 2004 article from the No Depression archive.)

Comment by lenny polizzi on November 27, 2012 at 1:25pm

On my short list for album of the year. Intensely heartfelt and moving. Does what it is suppose to do and make this listener feel a range of emotion. This record does it on many levels. Again could be album of the year.

Comment by monica jones on November 27, 2012 at 4:48pm

I had the privilege earlier this year of hearing Iris everytime she performed on the Cayamo cruise. She was the reason I traveled to the opposite end of the continent. The first concert was in a bar, at the front of the boat (or the rear, I can't remember). We got there late and could only find seats from which we could not see the stage.  It was Iris at the piano playing songs I had never heard before, one after the other. I wandered over to a big window and watched the moon reflected in the ocean as Iris washed over me and through me. Those songs became "Sing the Delta," my choice for Album of 2012.

Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on November 27, 2012 at 5:30pm

Steve, very nice comments and recollections. It's worth mentioning for those unaware that Iris did an album in 2004 of trad gospel songs "Lifeline," which includes one Iris original. Her complex relationship to gospel, religion and faith is continually fascinating.

I think her voice is as distinctive as any of those greats you mention. I always mavel at the pure, soul-stabbing power of her tone, bolstered by the context of her feeling/thought at the moment. 

Comment by Steve Ford on November 27, 2012 at 7:30pm

Kevin, the David Cantwell article coincided with the release of Lifeline. One of the songs from that album (Leaning On The Everlasting Armswas used over the closing credits of the Cohen Brothers' True Grit, and I imagine that led to a whole bunch of people discovering Iris DeMent, mirroring Northern Exposure all those years ago.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.