Name that songwriter: "Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones/Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy." No, it's not Jello Biafra. "We kill for oil, then we throw a party when we win/Some guy refuses to fight, and we call that the sin." No, it's not Rage Against the Machine. Five years have passed since Iris DeMent wrote and sang these words on her third and last album, words that, as critic David Cantwell once observed, could get her killed. Little on her first resolutely personal country/folk recordings presaged such militancy; if her jabs at Beavis and Butt-head or crotches on MTV didn't always convince, she wasn't standing still -- and she wasn't pulling punches. Since then, gig dates have been rare and no follow-up to her major-label debut is planned.But DeMent hasn't disappeared. She cut both the most stunning song and scene in Songcatcher, rocked "I Miss a Lot of Trains" on Real: The Tom T. Hall Project, nailed "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" on The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, dueted with Loudon Wainwright III on Bleecker Street, and contributed to albums by Ralph Stanley, John Prine, Merle Haggard and Tom Russell. DeMent has been writing new songs, but she refuses to release music that doesn't equal or surpass her own standards.
On her first two albums, Infamous Angel and My Life, those standards, though indebted to her country and folk heroes Loretta Lynn and Nanci Griffith, were and are unparalleled. DeMent's songs confess crimes and hopes we never guessed could be so truly expressed; her melodies unfurl like dreams, and her soul-wild voice has no living equal. DeMent is often associated with some mythical Appalachian ancientry, and yet her songs, impossible without the interior darings of Dylan, Prine and Mitchell, belong to the brutal and beautiful here-and-now. The form of her pursuit, whether she continues the politics of The Way I Should or again tears away the veil over her soul, matters less than the fullness of human circumstance -- its gravity, its mystery -- that for nearly 10 years has been the lasting achievement of her art.