Iris DeMent likes to play the long game. When the Pentecostal-raised but avowedly agnostic 31-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, made her John Prine-cosigned debut on the alt-country/Americana stage, she opened her first album, 1992’s Infamous Angel, with a succinctly perfect verse that laid the foundation for a career-spanning concept of secular spirituality: “Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from / Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done / But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me / I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”
On “Workin’ on a World,” the title track and opener off DeMent’s new album, the philosophical tables are turned: Now it’s DeMent who’s “filled with sadness, fear, and dread.” But instead of retreating inward, she finds faith in the cause of others, and decides it’s actually what comes after that’s more important than the troubles of the day. “I’m workin’ on a world / I may never see,” goes the plainspoken chorus, which sets the tone of this set as surely as “Let the Mystery Be” did her diaristic debut. That is to say that DeMent has put herself on a path of activism — and not for the first time, either. In 1996, just before the longest gap in her discography, she released The Way I Should, an album which grappled with the turbulent political climate of its day. And both the biggest swings and the modest misses of this set largely trace back to that effort.
At its best, DeMent’s activism not only hits its targets with a sneering righteousness, but also puts the rock back in what’s long been a defanged alt-country genre. The first few seconds of “Workin’ on a World” feature the same old-timey church piano that DeMent made the foundation of her austere 2012 album, Sing the Delta, but here that instrument is quickly interrupted by a hard symbol crash and a full band accompaniment joining in, with a rollicking Mark Knopler-style guitar solo in the middle and a horn section worthy of Muscle Shoals. It’s a statement of purpose in more ways than one, but the specific motivations for its call-to-arms are sketched in vague terms.
DeMent saves the proper nouns and a litany of causes that she’s fighting for (and against) with this album for its eight-minute second track, “Going Down to Sing in Texas.” That song — penned after DeMent was shocked to arrive at a Texas university campus where she’d long performed only to see a new sign posted about proper etiquette for open carry — splits the difference between ragtime gospel and jazz shuffle, and recalls some of the more distended late Bob Dylan compositions. Though, unlike Dylan, DeMent is less interested in weaving puckish Americana myths than soberly addressing the people who inspire her to stand her ground (The Chicks [née Dixie], the Squad, Muslims) and calling out some familiar groups of offenders (war criminals, greedy people, Trump). It’s an ambitious piece that sometimes trips over the corniness of its good intentions (“I got a plan / How about we ban hate from every corner of this land?”), much like 1996’s “Wasteland of the Free” did when it took a moralizing tone against a generation that knew “the name of every crotch on MTV.” But the careening focus proves instructive, and is born out over the course of an album whose breadth is nothing short of disarming.
The best song here, “The Sacred Now,” not only rocks the hardest, but features some of DeMent’s sharpest and most economical writing in decades, an effortless string of evocative juxtapositions lent a kind of cosmic grace through the singer’s see-sawing vocal delivery: “Time speeds by, then slows down / All is lost, hope is found.” DeMent was at the vanguard of a new intellectual movement in country music in the ‘90s, and songs like “The Sacred Now” and “The Cherry Orchard” — which feels out the psychological contours of a character from the Chekhov play of the same name — remind just how singular her songwriting voice (to say nothing of her uniquely rural-influenced trill) has always been. On “Nothin’ for Dead,” which features more horn charts and gorgeous pedal steel, DeMent gets especially adventurous, sketching a series of short observational vignettes with loosely extracted life lessons, before inserting herself into the song to comment directly on its jumble of ideas.
In fact, the fulcrum of a lot of these songs — the motif that holds together an album that often seems to be pushing in a lot of different directions at once — tends to be a verse, or even just a few lines, where DeMent reflects on her own charge as an artist and as a moral person. Toward the end of “Going Down to Texas,” she returns to the subject of an afterlife, but it’s suddenly become a lot more real to her, maybe because of that inevitable proximity to guns: “I don’t know if there’s a judgment day or a master plan / But I know I want to be ready if before the Lord I stand.” The collected sentiments of Workin on a World, from its most earnest moments of liberal guilt to its poetic discursiveness, amount to a mighty testament, a simultaneous retrospective look at DeMent’s career-long preoccupations as songwriter and a building-out of her earnest concern for the future.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 9.