On "He Reached Down," the only song she wrote on her first album in eight years, Iris DeMent draws on Biblical stories to create her own modern parable. There's the Good Samaritan, who helps a beaten-down man after a religious leader and others have crossed the road to avoid him. There's also Jesus embracing an adulterous woman brought to him by hypocritical community leaders, whom Jesus chastises for insisting that she be stoned.
It's a typically plainspoken and clear-minded DeMent song, yet its context is key. "He Reached Down" sits at the center of Lifeline, a collection of old-time gospel favorites that DeMent resurrects from her strict Pentecostal upbringing. At a time when the world is wracked with war waged under the banner of religion, DeMent offers a song that says Jesus preached compassion rather than retribution.
Still, that DeMent would choose to record a gospel album might surprise some of her fans. One of her most famous songsand the opening track on her 1992 debutis "Let the Mystery Be," a sly, gentle repudiation of the fundamental tenet of her Christian upbringing. The lyrics inventory theories about what happens after death, from reincarnation to eternal life to oblivion, as DeMent suspends judgment about them all. "I believe in love, and I live my life accordingly," she sweetly begins, "But I choose to let the mystery be."
Six years later, on "Wasteland of the Free," the most controversial song of her career, DeMent blasted fundamentalists who claim to speak for all Christians. "They say they are Christ's disciples / But they don't look like Jesus to me," she sang.
DeMent's gospel album likely won't be featured on the broadcasts of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But doubtless that's one of the reasons she decided to make the record in the first place. Just as Buddy Miller did with his recent Universal United House of Prayer, DeMent is shining a light on Jesus' message of love and compassion at a time when many are using religion to draw lines in the sand.
Indeed, despite "Let the Mystery Be" and her ongoing questioning of her evangelical Christian roots, gospel music has always been a major component of DeMent's work. She's performed covers of religious songs on each of her albums; her piano playing is straight out of the church; her records' arrangements often have a hymn-like melodic structure and rhythmic drive; and she sings with the unabashed power of someone raised in a congregation where raising your voice without fear is considered a show of faith.
Vocally, DeMent has never sounded stronger or less self-conscious. Rough-hewn and sweetly beautiful, her quavering voice is one of the most distinctive and expressive of its time, which is why the likes of John Prine and Merle Haggard have wanted to sing with her. DeMent keeps her new songs bare-boned and free of modern flourishes; her recordings are as sturdy and as unaffected by time or place as a wooden pew.
On one level, Lifeline can be viewed as a social statement for a tumultuous time. After all, on the first night the U.S. bombed Iraq, this is the woman who told an audience in Wisconsin that she'd refund their tickets because she couldn't in good conscience put on a show in light of what happened that day.
Yet DeMent's record is more personal than political. The Arkansas-born singer has admitted that she's recently had trouble writing songs that she felt measured up to her standards. In her darkest days, instead of trying to compose new music, she found herself sitting at the piano singing the gospel songs of her youth. Thus her decision to devote an album to the music that has brought her solace and strength over the years.
Lifeline can serve a similar role for listeners. DeMent performs these bedrock songsincluding well-known hymns like "Blessed Assurance," "That Old Gospel Ship" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"with a conviction that underscores their enduring power and with an intimacy that conveys how much they mean to her.
Unlike some gospel albums, the purpose of Lifeline isn't to push eternal life in Christ; instead, it's a personal rendering of what a questioning, sensitive soul finds important in the songs of her youth. As DeMent sang in "Let the Mystery Be," she still believes in love, and she still lives her life accordingly. That's the message that has stuck with her 12 years later, and that's the message that she still turns to when she has trouble making sense of her life and the larger world.
Lifeline isn't DeMent's best album. There's nothing here as distinctively powerful as "Mama's Opry," "Our Town," "No Time to Cry," "Easy's Gettin' Harder Every Day," "When My Mornin' Comes Around" or the other originals from her past that made DeMent such a singular musical voice.
Nevertheless, the album is a gift that can be cherished by those who find power in the more liberating implications of Jesus' message, or by anyone who can be moved by a personal statement of faith. Lifeline may be a departure, but DeMent uses the album to explain who she is and what's been on her mind. What she reveals has a timeless quality that will have fans turning to her music for the same reason she returns to these old, everlasting songs.
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