Life works in mysterious ways, Iris DeMent nearly gave up on the songs from Workin’ On A World, the album that had its genesis after America’s 2016 presidential anomaly. By 2020 the recordings helmed by Richard Bennet and Jim Rooney had stalled out as the pandemic took hold. That’s when Pieta Brown stepped in. She asked to listen to what had been recorded. As DeMent says, “I had everything we’d done sent over to her, and not long after that I got a text, bouncing with exclamation marks: ‘You have a record and it’s called Workin’ On A World!’”
Coming 30 years after her classic album, Infamous Angel, these songs, with strong tinges of folk and gospel, deal with the notion of creating a more hospitable world. As DeMent recalls, “I kept hearing a lot of talk about the arc of history that Dr. King so famously said bends toward justice. I was having my doubts. But, then it dawned on me, he never said the arc would magically bend itself. Songs, over the course of history, have proven to be pretty good arc benders.”
Inspired, she takes to bending so many arcs. The song, ‘Working on a World’ begins the process in an almost mournful fashion as the music bounces along. Recalling the gospel classic, ‘Working on a Building’, DeMent realises that just because there’s no guarantee you’ll see the finished product shouldn’t stop you from taking the first steps. “When I see a little baby/ Reaching out its arms to me/ I remember why I’m workin’ on a world/ I may never see.” And it’s a world that definitely needs a bit of work.
She doesn’t pull any punches as she takes aim at a variety of targets. ‘Going Down to Sing in Texas’ not only takes on gun control but also offers a tip of the hat to the folks who speak out against injustice and are forced to endure the consequences. It’s a brave song, designed to upset people who haven’t thought through their actions. She makes her own position quite clear and takes her stand, “Go ahead and shoot me if it floats your little boat/ But I’ll live by my conscience even if that’s all she wrote.”
DeMent choses her words carefully, befitting a woman whose been singing for a long while but only has seven albums to her credit. Workin’ on a World illustrates her ability to craft lyrics that get to the point simply and succinctly. She doesn’t mince words yet turns phrases with a grace born from living life at a different pace. Born in Arkansas and living in Iowa, she deals with reality in a way different from life on the coasts. Good simply isn’t good enough, her lyrics fit like a glove.
Some may see DeMent as taking a brave stand for what is right. There is no doubt of her raising a voice for what is right. Brave though? It doesn’t take bravery to stand up to injustice, it takes a conscious. Knowing that something is wrong doesn’t get you very far unless you are willing to speak out against it. Again and again Iris DeMent takes on those forces that would divide us, sometimes gently, other times boldly singing out to the heavens. Workin’ On A World is not the sound of a lone voice calling out in the wilderness. It needs to become a movement of hope. We all need to be workin’ on a world we may never see.