“Let the Mystery Be”, the first song on Iris DeMent’s 1992 debut album Infamous Angel, is one of the more enduring songs about questioning religious doctrine on life and death, expressing a preference for the unknown versus the concrete answers that religions purport to have. Twenty years later, DeMent’s fifth album Sing the Delta tackles similar questions head-on, with a similar capacity for acute skepticism, but with a twist: the music is steeped in the sounds of the church, not far removed musically from her fourth album, 2004’s Lifeline, a covers collection of traditional Protestant hymns.
Take the third song “The Kingdom Has Already Come”, for example. The piano at the start says church music, and DeMent starts out singing about stopping into a church to pray, even though “I don’t even know if I believe in God.” The song’s form is spiritual, and her singing exalted as usual, but the conclusions are that the supposed kingdom of heaven is already here. It gets more specific and arresting in its imagery than that. She sees the kids playing in the open fire hydrant as getting baptized, hears hymns in the sound of the wind moving the trees in her yard around. Towards the end of the album she does something similar without painting such a rosy picture of life. “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven” feels even more constricted to a religious songform, and is even more unashamedly declarative. There’s little mystery here; heaven is in the love shared between people struggling to make something good out of our life of pain, tears and unfairness. She sings: “Take your streets of gold if you really want ‘em and your mansions so dear / but I’ll take the whole lotta heaven that’s shining in this river of tears.”
“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray” pins a narrative to similar sentiment. A four-year-old witnesses her baby brother get injured and hospitalized, prays to God that he’ll pull through in his final moments, and is let down when he passes away. “That was the night I learned how not to pray,” DeMent sings, “because God does what he wants to anyway”. The narrative form of the song recalls DeMent’s third album The Way I Should (1996), especially the child-abuse narrative “Letter to Mom”. The frankness, even didacticism of that album might set the stage for this album’s bluntness of opinion on eternal matters, though this album is on the whole more graceful about it. The Way I Should got less glowing reviews than her first two albums, and DeMent felt that her frank protest songs on it were what drove people away, which might explain this album’s track “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth”, where she puts herself in the footsteps of her mother, who she describes as always speaking her mind, no matter what.
But family is never far away in DeMent’s music, and certainly never far away here. To an extent the whole album is a tribute to her roots, not just to the South where she was born (though the title track – a seven-minute love song to the Delta – does that quite memorably) but to her parents, to whom she will always connect all of her memories of the South. And, it seems, many of her musical memories as well, which also seem inexorably linked to the church. These memories of church, of family, of hymns, invariably end up relating back to these notions of life, death and the supposed afterlife. The album’s opening track “Go On Ahead and Go Home” is a modern-day hymn about letting go of this material world and moving on to the next. Along with church-style piano – the dominant instrument, besides DeMent’s voice, on the album – the song contains remarkable, visceral scenery: descriptions of cypress trees, cotton growing tall, her mother shining in the sunlight. She makes the song both about going on to a spiritual home and about going back to her the physical home of her birth, also clearly equating the two. “Makin’ My Way Back Home” is more literally about returning to a hometown, but really feels similar and speaks similar language. It ends up being just as much about letting go. “All these things that held me down / Well, they just don’t matter anymore,” she sings.
These songs take their time, unfolding at times over five or six minutes, the words and music (not just her piano, but steel guitar and other accompanying touches) slowly adding details that build a powerful feeling, picture or story. As focused on the big questions of life as the album often seems to be, it’s also very first-person, intimate and direct. There are songs where her voice swells up, undramatically, with an almost inconceivable amount of emotion. That’s been a trait of her voice since her first album and these songs play to that also, often by accentuating sweet languor over any immediate pop-song form. Her piano playing is at turns spiritual, sad and confident – often all of these, like on “Livin’ On the Inside”, a stirring song about wishing you could go back to the thoughtless pleasures of childhood instead of endlessly dissecting the big questions of the world. Picture our protagonist sitting in a room full of books, staying up all night searching for answers, and feeling like she can’t healthily continue in this fashion for much longer. She longs to touch, grab, roll around in the grass and get out of her own head.
That longing for something beyond yourself pervades the album. It’s in its testament to the South and the pervading twilight glow that embodies that; in its spiritual longings and incisive religious questioning; in its turn towards community and family; in its infatuation with memories, good and bad; in its turning nature and the world around us into a dreamland. The eight-minute finale “Out of the Fire” captures all of this in an almost abstract way, her voice and gently circling piano washing over us with memories, scenery and imagery of renewal, release and rebirth. If you want to get music-biographical about it, you can imagine this moment, where she’s singing with quiet power about rising like a phoenix, as some apex of her career, a moments of supreme height after decade-plus struggle with writer’s block. The album itself feels like a major achievement in that context. It’s been 16 years since her last album of original material, and Sing the Delta is her weightiest album yet in that regard. The album balances together everything she’s done on her previous four albums, while looking both ahead and behind. This rebirth is also a return. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the final words on the album are “I’m headed back home.”