Iris DeMent - Infamous Angel Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the devastating and sublime debut from one of the most outstanding voices and songwriters in country music.

When Iris DeMent was a baby, her father staged a wildcat strike—meaning a strike without the backing or safety of a union—at the Emerson Electric plant in Arkansas. He stood for a year on the picket line before the whole thing collapsed in 1964, sending his family of 16 scrambling for a new home. They packed up everything they had and hastily relocated to Buena Park, California, and then Sacramento. Iris’ father found work as a gardener and a janitor, and her mother raised the family in extreme hardship. When things grew unbearably difficult, as they often did, Iris’ mother Flora Mae sat down at the piano to sing.
Iris’ childhood was Pentecostal, which meant church, stark moral lines, and lots of gospel. Music was ever-present: It was a connection to the Arkansas Delta they’d left behind and a vent for repressed feelings. Her older sisters formed a gospel group known as the DeMent Sisters and recorded one album. Her father played fiddle at dances and in church and her family passed the hymnal book around every week and harmonized. The first secular voices Iris heard were Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, but not until she was 5 years old. Before then, it was just her own voice, her mother’s, and the hymnal book. “She told me, before she died, singing is praying,” DeMent said of her mother, who died in 2011. “I find that songwriting is praying, too.”

DeMent didn’t begin writing her own songs or recording them until she was in her twenties. By then, she was living in Topeka, Kansas, cleaning houses and waitressing. Once in a while, to make extra money, she sang at nightclubs and bars. It stirred something in her, a nameless desire that she finally put a name to when she signed up for a creative writing course at Washburn College. She had always been intensely shy, even bashful, but, as she told Terry Gross in 2015, “when the songs started coming to me, I felt I didn’t have the option to hide.” She wanted to be a singer and a songwriter, and she wanted her music in the world. She would write her own songs and record them, no matter if no one liked them, no matter if everyone laughed. So she borrowed her brother’s guitar and sat down to write “Our Town.”

Nearly 30 years later, the song’s been passed around like a church plate—you could hear it on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” on the series finale of Northern Exposure. DeMent writes from the perspective of a woman watching her small town dwindle and slip into the past. It’s not a novel lens—Americana and country music are full of the regrets of the small-towners who feel left behind, who understand that the bustle and business of living is something happening elsewhere, that they are the supporting characters of their own lives.

But DeMent’s version of this old trope stands out in part because of its unsentimental bleakness. The first line of the song—“And you know the sun’s setting fast”—plunges us mid-sentence into a world where death is swiftly approaching. DeMent’s verses are simple and spare, like all of her writing. She stops to note when she had her babies and where her parents are buried, takes a glance at the bar where she met her lover “on one hot summer night,” and moves on. It could be any small town in America in the past 60 years, which is precisely the point. By the song’s end, the narrator has set off for parts unknown (“but I don’t wanna go”) and the sense of desolation is overwhelming.

The other reason, of course, that people were spooked to attention by “Our Town” was DeMent’s voice. It is a tremulous wail, a disruptive vibration that shakes and rattles the spaces that attempt to contain it. When she sings, she often contorts her face into a comical grimace, like a small girl scolding her doll. People have described her voice as “childlike,” but the wisdom in her delivery is far too grave, too matter-of-fact to ascribe to a child. It is the clarion voice of someone who has been singing to survive unimaginable hardship since they were little and who has never stopped to consider, even once, how they might sound to others.

When DeMent’s career began, listeners often assumed she had been raised in some Appalachian holler or on a dirt farm instead of an Orange County suburb. In this confusion, she was like many artists associated with American roots music: John Fogerty, for example, from Berkeley, or Buck Owens from Bakersfield; Dwight Yoakam from Los Angeles, or Gillian Welch from Manhattan. Like those artists, DeMent’s connection was more spiritual than geographical. She might have moved hundreds of miles away, but she only had to open her mouth for everyone to hear the Pentecostal Arkansas Delta living inside her.

Things moved fairly quickly for DeMent once she decided on singing. In 1988, she moved to Nashville; the folk label Rounder handed her a record contract shortly after. Her debut Infamous Angel was released in 1992 to universal acclaim, and less than a year later, someone played a demo for Lenny Waronker at Warner Brothers, who just as promptly bought her out of her Rounder contract. DeMent has been touring and releasing records at a steady clip ever since, save for a dry spell in the 2000s when she got married, battled depression, and emerged with 2012’s stunning Sing the Delta.

DeMent’s story—in its simple turns and clean lines—shares a little with John Prine’s, an artist with whom she will forever be linked. Like Prine, DeMent wrote some of her most indelible and beloved songs on her very first try. DeMent’s first two songs on Infamous Angel were “Our Town” and then “Let the Mystery Be.” If it is a cliché to note when an artist arrives “fully formed,” it is nonetheless still a shock when a brand-new artist steps to a stage, clears their throat, and then seems to say with their first words precisely what they’ve been waiting a lifetime to say.

“Let the Mystery Be” is an astonishing, sui generis accomplishment—a breezy song about not knowing where you go after you die. At first, DeMent sets out the terms of the great beyond in the simplest and folksiest imaginable language—“Everybody’s wondering what and where they all came from”—before considering the various options before her. In her patience, she sounds like she’s refereeing a particularly intractable family argument. She touches lightly on atheism (“Some say once you’re gone, you’re gone forever”) and on animism (“Some say that they’re coming back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas”) before returning, again and again, to the serenity of not knowing. “I think I’ll just let the mystery be,” she sings, the sweet shrug audible in her voice.

Among countless other things, the song also offers a plainspoken accounting for her own Pentecostal childhood, a way of sifting through what she will keep and what she’s leaving behind. Over the years, she’s repeatedly expressed gratitude for that culture, for the exposure to gospel and the deep spiritual well that nourished her, but she has spoken just as often of learning to leave behind its dogma. On “Let the Mystery Be,” she dispenses with damnation and purgatory and parses out the kernel she knows she will treasure (“I believe in love and I live my life accordingly”). It’s like watching someone discover their guiding philosophy in real time every time you play it.

She revisited this territory on 2012’s “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” which retold with harrowing simplicity the death of her friend’s baby brother. “I was sure if I prayed hard enough that God would make it right,” she sings. When her efforts are unsuccessful (“I knew that it was over when my sister slammed that phone against the wall”) she learns a hard lesson, one she keeps from her family: “God does what he wants to anyway.”

Irreconcilable loss is DeMent’s great theme, and it resounds across Infamous Angel. On “These Hills,” a nostalgic visit to the countryside of the narrator’s youth quickly becomes a deathbed vision of paradise lying just beyond. Unlike Johnny Cash, she doesn’t raise the fear of hellfire. On her cover of the Depression-era standard “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” heaven is just some place where you’ll finally get space to yourself. In her writing, death is nothing special, just another place humans go.

But there is also nothing storybook about her writing. DeMent’s best songs lean into the crippling heartache of loss with the same sobriety with which they examine the mysteries of the afterlife. “After You’re Gone” feels like the flip side to the serenity of “Let the Mystery Be”—the dead may not have much left to worry about, or to feel, wherever they’re headed. But those of us left on earth must walk in the wilderness, and DeMent’s writing leads us through it, cutting a new path with each line.

“There’ll be laughter even after you’re gone/I’ll find reasons to face that empty dawn”—in just one couplet, DeMent encompasses grief in all its platitudinous truths and ugly realities. Scan the YouTube comments for one of these songs and visit a wailing wall of lost relatives, brothers, sisters, spouses. It is clear these songs have soundtracked countless funerals, induced communal waves of compulsive sobbing. There is a moment, in the brittle numbness of fresh grief, when you yearn for something, anything to reach through to the raw mess of nerves and viscera underneath. You are awaiting—dreading, craving—the gut punch. And Iris DeMent songs gently provide it.

The penultimate song on Infamous Angel revisits the wellspring of all of DeMent’s music, the reason for the purity of her singing and the clarity of her vision. It is called “Mama’s Opry,” and it tells in loving detail of watching her mother sing country songs to herself under her breath. The indelible image, which lingers over the album, is of young Iris noticing the private sparkle in her mother’s eyes as she hums Jimmie Rodgers, pinning clothes on the line: “I’d be playing in the grass/To her what might’ve seemed obliviously/But there ain’t no doubt about it, she sure made her mark on me.”

The snapshot is both intimate and clear, and in just two lines, it delivers us back to a vanished world. This deliverance has always been the promise of Americana—premised on the idea that the world it depicted was gone, and had perhaps never existed outside of fleeting moments of the imagination. But the message living within it only grows more powerful as we make our way through successive seasons of loss. Your childhood home, your family, and your entire way of life may disappear. Whatever you can offer in this contingent world is whatever is left inside of you when all else is gone, and what comes out of you when you open your mouth.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Iris DeMent - Infamous Angel Music Album Reviews Iris DeMent - Infamous Angel Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, January 24, 2021 Rating: 5

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