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Finding her religion

Iris Dement suffered writer's block in the past, but now she's back with a blessed album of gospel covers. Definitely something to be thankful for. By Randy Abramson.
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It was only one album ago that Iris Dement was questioning the intentions of religious leaders that frolicked in “politics and diamond mines” on her scathing, “Wasteland of the Free,” a commentary on American culture circa 1996.  Three years previous to the release of that truth-be-told nugget, Dement pondered about what becomes of us in the afterlife (“Let the Mystery Be”) and sang of the sinful pleasures she shares with her newly found hunka-hunka burnin’ love (“Hotter Than Mojave in My Heart”).

So what drove this curious heathen to put out a gospel record after being silent for eight years?  The easy assumption is that she recently found God. But Iris has been singing gospel songs since childhood and she dismisses the notion that this project is some born again fling or ride on the “Passion” bandwagon by writing in the liner notes, “These songs aren’t about religion…they’re about something bigger than that.” Dement has also spoken in the past about her fits of writer’s block, so perhaps producing this collection of standard gospel songs (sans one Iris original) was easier than spinning the near-perfect yarns that filled her previous three masterpiece albums.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter what motivation delivered this blessed collection, which is entitled, “Lifelines,” to our troubled times. The important thing is that it has arrived.  The songs are simple and straightforward blocks of devotion, but Iris’ personal and nuanced readings of the songs make for more complicated listening. 

On the opener, “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart,” Iris croons, “Nobody knows what it means to me, nobody knows but my God and me.” The line, sung over a bouncy acoustic arrangement, is a key proclamation of what this album, and Iris’ faith for that matter, is about.  Yes, some of these songs are cheery, but these reworkings are not for grand choirs that wear flowing robes in a majestic white cathedral.  Instead, these are personal gospel songs that are to be sung in a church that takes the form of an attic and where the only audience is the God that Iris herself believes in. Perhaps the greatest thing about this inspired gathering of timeless tunes (some date back to the 1800s) is that it in fact sounds like an Iris Dement record.  Just as Wilco and Billy Bragg rejiggered abandoned Woody Guthrie lyrics to sound like original and modern alt-country treasures on the two “Mermaid Avenue” albums, Iris is able to stamp these traditional songs with her distinctive voice and subtle arrangements to make them her own.  Additionally, the “lifelines” that stream from these songs not only connect Iris to a higher power, they also form a bond with the characters and themes of the songwriter’s past. 

The weary housewife heard in “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day,” from the “My Life” record is now bathed in faith on “I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted (To This World).” The lonely character of 1992’s “Our Town” who stays in her hometown after her parents pass on finds new strength in that she knows she will see them again on “That Glad Reunion Day.” And even that aforementioned lover of “Hotter Than Mojave In My Heart” emerges as she lends her adoring vocal delivery to “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart.” All of this pours out of Iris’ powerhouse voice-box with complete love for the music and its meaning.  Her voice is so strong that there were times that I thought that a higher power might in fact be playing with my iPod’s volume setting. Missing here are the usual staples of Iris albums: her astute observations, ironic phrasings and story lines that are often open-ended and without hope. On this offering, which was released on Election Day, Iris pushes the doubt aside and just believes. But the complexity of her interpretations and the lineage back to the troubled characters in her past work prove that believing can be unique to the individual and that wonderful things can happen when one unmistakable voice has both the courage to ask questions and the strength to find her faith.

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