States of Grace

States of Grace
by Dave Marsh

Iris Dement

The Way I Should

Warner Bros.

          THERE IS A tense undercurrent of suppressed emotion in Iris Dement's first two albums. Beautifully written and sung as they are, there is a power they do not unleash. On The Way I Should, she lets it all go, which is to say she lets herself get angry. The result is a shock, a collection of songs comparable in its sense of aesthetic completeness and self-discovery to Joni Mitchell's Blue and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. Those comparisons are so extreme they may sound like hyperbole--but if you think so, you won't have heard Dement in full flight on "There's A Wall in Washington," one of the most fully realized soundscapes of the past 20 years, a pairing of voice and arrangement that, truth be told, reminds me of the late Beatles, too. You will not have experienced the full measure of her storytelling, scene-setting, and character invention on songs like "The Way I Should," "Letter to Mom," and "Walkin' Home." You will not have heard Dement pour herself into her own brand of honky-tonk blues on the song she wrote with Merle Haggard, "This Kind of Happy," or praise the lord on "Keep Me God," or raise pure hell on "Trouble."

          These are not mainly angry songs, of course. The angriest song on the album, "Wasteland of the Free," isn't even on that list--though it's the track that proves that Dement has blasted past every stricture that country, bluegrass, and folk might impose. The anger embodied in the record is important precisely because it's only an aspect of what she does, because it comes from someone much more accustomed to singing about grace, reconciliation, love, peace of mind. Dement's fury is therefore startling in a way that anger in our culture hasn't been for a good long time. That's why her simple "We call ourselves an advanced civilization/ That sounds like crap to me" possesses more force and credibility than any punk record I've heard since "Holidays in the Sun." (And in this, it's even more reminiscent of what happened when Mitchell burst forth in full bitterness on some of the songs on Ladies of the Canyon and For the Roses.)

          Dement opens the record with "When My Morning Comes Around," the most beautiful song about reconciliation she has ever written or sung, a song that is both a prayer and an assertion of defiance. (Her final "I know my morning will come around" has the same tenor as Springsteen's "I'm pullin' out of here to win.") The song takes its rhythms from the church, and its imagery from the Bible. Its final verse, particularly, reworks the imagery of gospel's promise in a way that makes sense, for me, of the conflict between the teachings of Jesus and the lives we live everyday. In that glorious hour of resurrection, Dement swears, "For once I won't be thinkin' that there's somethin' wrong with me/And I'll wake up and find that all my faults have been forgiven/And that's when I'll start livin', when my mornin' comes around."

          I have listened all my life to singers I revere express themselves in that vein--Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, Marion Williams, R.H. Harris and Sam Cooke. But I have never heard anyone put the words to music quite so contemporary (and this music is contemporary, without rejecting Dement's folk and bluegrass base). I have also not heard anyone who has the temerity, the simple guts, to go at the promise of achieving that resurrection of the spirit in the here and now the way that Iris Dement goes after it on this album.

          Dement's social vision grows directly out of an understanding of the sacred that's present in her religious view of life and afterlife. I would call her a Christian but because she rejects organized churches, she denies herself that name--and in a sense, The Way I Should is about the consequences of her iconoclasm, about the price she is willing to pay to remain true to her vision. So when, a couple songs later, she sings "Don't really matter if I live or even if I die," it doesn't feel like the zeal of a religious fanatic or the callow boast of a hedonistic fool. It feels like a truth she has sought and found on her own--and thus understands in a way that most singers (and most Christians, for that matter) couldn't. And the miracle of The Way I Should is that it grants any attentive listener a little bit of the grace that Iris Dement has discovered for herself.

          If I had the power to bestow blessings, I would bless her for making it. But one of the graces that witnessing such artistic fulfillment grants us is humility. So I will only wish for others that they can hear this music and heed its call, and pray for myself that I can live up to all that I hear in it.

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