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'Lifeline': Iris DeMent's Sweet Salvation

By Joe Heim
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page C05

Some people turn to comfort food for solace. Iris DeMent turns to comfort songs. At least she has on "Lifeline," her first album in eight years and one that finds her revisiting the church music of her youth in rural Arkansas and California as a form of therapy and perhaps even salvation.

"A few years ago, just before I started making this record, the hard times came in for a long visit and about the only thing that helped was sitting at the piano singing these songs to myself," DeMent writes in the album's liner notes. There's a real spareness, an emotional nakedness to this recording that makes it easy to imagine the 43-year-old singer-songwriter sitting alone, despairing and playing the songs as a search for some kind of peace.

Iris DeMent says "Lifeline," her first album in eight years, is not about religion, but something bigger than that. (Pieta Brown)

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Though DeMent has written just one of the songs on the record, her choices for covers are revealing. All deal with the same basic theme: the desire to be delivered from sorrow and suffering. And her telltale twangy voice -- which sometimes seems to have arrived unblemished from Civil War-era America -- is a startlingly primitive and beautiful conduit for these 13 spiritual plaints.

DeMent also writes that, for her, these songs are not about religion, but something bigger than that. By turns bouncily uplifting and quietly meditative, these songs were obviously selected as powerful salve for whatever darkness had enveloped her. By any measure, though, they are certainly religious songs, most with an old-time feel and some dating back as far as the mid-19th century.

Several of these Sunday-morning songs are fairly well known. "I've Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart," "Blessed Assurance" and "The Old Gospel Ship" have become part of the fabric of American music history, appealing to secular and non-secular music fans alike. Others are a bit less familiar, like "God Walks the Dark Hills" and "Hide Thou Me."

What all of the songs share, though, is the feel of intensely personal dialogue. DeMent's voice is pleading as she reaches out to a higher power, whatever she understands that to be. In the song that she wrote, "He Reached Down," the expression of faith invokes Jesus's parables. It is a statement of faith for those who have reached rock bottom: "He reached down, He reached down, He got right there on the ground, He reached down, He reached down and touched the pain."

Religious and old-time gospel songs have always informed DeMent's music, even on her earlier albums when she was singing songs about her home town or war or passion. Here, though, they are the central focus. And in them she has found the refuge and relief she so desperately sought. It's not a stretch to imagine that she hopes the songs might provide the same for others.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company