Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Iris DeMent

  • Infamous Angel [Philo, 1992] B+
  • My Life [Warner Bros., 1994] A+
  • The Way I Should [Warner Bros., 1996] A
  • Lifeline [Flariella, 2004] **
  • Sing the Delta [Flariella, 2012] A-
  • Workin' on a World [Flariella, 2023] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Infamous Angel [Philo, 1992]
Because it leads with the miraculous "Let the Mystery Be"--an agnostic's declaration of faith so homespun it makes the word agnostic seem absurdly hoity-toity and severe, so unfaltering it modestly conceals the tremendous intellectual effort her decision not to know self-evidently required--this Kansas City 31-year-old's debut has authenticity hounds in a lather. But she never gets so near perfection again--the catchy "Our Town" seems contrived by comparison, the signature "Infamous Angel" obscure. Also, she worries more about her sins than an agnostic should. It's hard to believe she's ever done anything that bad. B+

My Life [Warner Bros., 1994]
Although her attack is more austere, DeMent's voice is as country as Kitty Wells's or Loretta Lynn's, and her writing defines the directness sophisticates prize in traditional folk songs--she has something she wants to say, and so she proceeds from Point A to Point B in the straightest line she can draw without a ruler. She doesn't get lost not just because she knows where Point B is, which is rare enough in this ambivalent time, but because she knows where Point A is--she knows that who she is begins with where she comes from, and she's made her peace with that. Unlike so many American artists who outgrow fundamentalism, she's not wracked by rage or guilt; at worst, she's sad about her distance from forebears she loves and admires despite their strict morality--a morality she'll never return to even though it's the bedrock of her personality and ultimately her work. The only change her major-label move means is a firmer commitment to pleasure--that is, to melody. Her dad, who gave up the fiddle when he got saved, would surely understand. A+

The Way I Should [Warner Bros., 1996]
Ooh, ick--four protest songs. One about sexual abuse--isn't that a little old? And what right does she have to put down upwardly mobiles with that "Quality Time" cliche? Only maybe she does have the right--maybe she's a better person than you, me, or the striver next door. Anyway, intellectual originality isn't her stock in trade. She's just a singer with the God-given ability to convey commonplace feelings as if they belong to her, as they do to all of us. And that these feelings should now include righteous indignation only proves that she's alive in history. Who else could intimate raging obscenity by putting the words "ass," "crap," and "damn" in the same song? Only the woman who still adduces home, marriage, and spiritual struggle with the unaffected simplicity you loved before she belonged to the world. A

Lifeline [Flariella, 2004]
Her heart cherishes Jesus' memory, but her mind, voice, and soul remain her own ("He Reached Down," "I've Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart"). **

Sing the Delta [Flariella, 2012]
From its opening chords, DeMent's own piano rolling beneath nearly every track--vernacular church piano, piano you can imagine a church lady playing--is the conceptual backbone of her first album of originals in 16 years. After "livin' on the inside too much," books "stacked on my table," she's ambitious intellectually like it or not, and the album has a James Agee quality right down to the unflattering cover photo of the 51-year-old artist. DeMent craves stuff she can "see and touch," but her songwriting makes do just fine with feeling. However thickly she applies her drawl, she left the South at four, and figures out how to correct for that absence by force of artistic will. The laxest concepts drift toward the commonplace, but that's what the piano is celebrating, so you forgive her. The strongest concepts bear down on her parents and their faith, which she loves on their behalf and rejects on her own. "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray" has no piano at all. A-

Workin' on a World [Flariella, 2023]
Too often on her first album since 2012 DeMent bonds with progressive rhetoric as uncritically as she memorized Bible verses when she was eight. In "Goin' Down to Sing in Texas," language like "the establishment," "people of color," "obscene amounts of wealth," and swear to God "those brave women in the Squad" can seem banal, even corny. But as she keeps going her ex-fundamentalist commitment to human equality is so out front its sincerity becomes a wonderment, until it's a lock cinch that the lead track's "Workin' on a world I may never see" bespeaks a courage, idealism, and self-sacrifice you're damn right she's preaching about. The one that begins "John Lewis stood on the Pettus Bridge" goes on to honor Rachel Corrie, crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza; DeMent's husband Greg Brown crafts a just barely satirical rabble-rouser for a racist evangelist called "Let Me Be Your Jesus" that she whispers into music; Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson, and Anton Chekhov all get their own songs. A horn section you weren't expecting helps punch her message home, and although her voice has deepened a tad as she passes 60, its clarity and directness remain. A-