Workin’ on a World
Iris DeMent (Flariella, 2023)
Iris DeMent once expressed that writing a song can be a form of prayer. But, as her critically acclaimed songwriting career attests, praying isn’t easy, especially in the face of tragedy and injustice. DeMent emerged in the Americana music scene in the early 90s with an empathetic eye to the plight of people trying to make ends meet and an experience of Christianity that didn’t always rise to the challenge of supporting those in need. Gratefully, her heart has been big enough to ask the big questions while remaining attuned to the struggles of everyday people.
DeMent’s new album Workin’ on a World pulls no punches in its observations about the failings of humanity, but it also searches for the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of. Her lyrics deftly navigate a path from confrontation to unity in songs such as “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas” to “The Sacred Now,” contrasting the continued absence of any meaningful gun restrictions with the deeper ties that bind humanity. Jesus is a guide on this journey, but it’s one that both church and society can easily reject or misunderstand.
DeMent perfects her musical style with allusions to gospel, country, blues, and folk. Upbeat horns enliven the songs, and a few John Denver-esque ballads show a disregard for transient trends. Her voice, as always, is the showcase, and here she stretches in new directions.
The title track is a universal social justice anthem we didn’t know we needed. Here she sings, “Now I’m workin’ on a world I may never see / I’m joinin’ forces with the warriors of love / who came before and will follow you and me / I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged just to be / Workin’ on a world, I may never see.” For those who appreciate her engagement with Christianity, it feels like she’s singing about building the kingdom of God.
This article also appears in the June 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 6, page 38). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.