Iris DeMent emerged from the holler with three stunning albums. Infamous Angel (1992) and My Life (1994) reveled in pure, unreconstructed Ozark wonder, brimming with original songs that sounded old as the hills. Then along came ’96’s The Way I Should, a sonic departure featuring a more contemporary folk-rock vibe that found DeMent tackling social protest songs like a young Robbie Dylan. This rousing beginning was followed by eight years of silence. As it turns out, DeMent went through her own private version of infamy during those years; a messy divorce, a marriage to folksinger Greg Brown, and, in 2003, a moratorium on performing while the Iraq War was being fought that puzzled and confounded as many fans as it inspired.
Lifeline, an album of traditional Pentecostal hymns, comes as both a holding pattern and a tentative return to the fray. DeMent explains in the liner notes that her mother found solace during hard times by retreating to the piano and singing old hymns. “She always looked up to the sky while she was singing,” she writes, “like somebody was there and she was talking right to them.” Listening to this album, it’s not hard to imagine Iris adopting the same posture, both literally and figuratively.
Recorded in Nashville with a bevy of studio pros, Lifeline’s thirteen songs occasionally descend into the kind of rote roots/gospel music recorded countless times before. I have nothing against The Nashville Bluegrass Band, but Stuart Duncan and Alan O’Bryant could probably play this music in their sleep, and occasionally the results here sound as if they had. It’s slick, safe, and ultimately underwhelming. But DeMent is at her best when she’s alone at the piano, eyes closed, head lifted.
Her voice, as always, carries all the force of nature—raw, plaintive and soaring—and it’s best showcased in unadorned settings. “Sweet Hour of Prayer” is a tour de force; a simple melody and simple piano chords backing words sung as if her very soul hung in the balance. DeMent achieves similarly stunning results with “Near the Cross,” “God Walks the Dark Hills,” “Hide Thou Me” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a quintet of no-frills, aching prayers conveying enough urgency and passion to send brazen sinners rushing to the altar. The one original here, DeMent’s “He Reached Down,” is a recasting of the Good Samaritan story that revisits the songwriter’s ongoing concern for society’s poor and discarded. It’s a strong effort, and should remind listeners again of DeMent’s formidable songwriting abilities.
But that’s also indicative of the tantalizing nature of Lifeline. What’s here is doubtlessly fine, but in the end I’m left wanting more. One new song in eight years? Here’s hoping DeMent’s turmoil is behind her and that her magnificent voice will again be matched by the power and insight of her poetry. In the meantime, Lifeline’s songs offer solace and comfort, and it’s nice to feel back in the company of an old friend.