You could scan the contemporary music horizon for a week and still not hear anything quite like Iris DeMent’s voice, a full-bodied soprano that bursts with yearning and knowing, while suggesting Loretta Lynn’s no-nonsense conviction and Mother Maybelle Carter’s purity. DeMent’s albums have a pre-rock feel, built on drummer-less string-band arrangements, but her songs avoid the drinkin’ and romancin’ clichés of hackneyed country to ruminate on God, death and the transforming power of music itself.
Riding a plaintive, gospel-tinged melody in “Let the Mystery Be,” the first song on Infamous Angel, DeMent brings an agnostic’s skepticism to her Pentecostal upbringing in rural Arkansas. In “Our Town,” she assumes the perspective of a much older woman forced to move on because of economic hard times. Even the potentially maudlin sentiments of “After You’re Gone,” about her late father, are transformed by the understated, yet heartfelt, delivery.
If Infamous Angel seemed a bit callow as it ached for lost innocence, My Life is a mature statement tinged with fatalism. Virtually identical to the debut in its folk-country melodicism, the album boasts a more consistent set of songs in which DeMent’s soaring voice turns plain-spoken verse into poetic revelation. “No Time to Cry” returns to the subject of her father’s death and examines how her grief has been put on hold by life’s relentless passage. Singing lines like “My life, it’s only a season/A passing September that no one will recall” (from the title track), she exudes a resigned self-knowledge (as opposed to self-pity) that is almost comforting. In celebrating faith, love, rural simplicity and singing along to the country radio, DeMent seems almost too innocent and simple for an ironic and edgy era, but the astonishing sincerity of her delivery and the pristine beauty of her voice bear a timeless and universal truth.