Iowan folksinger Iris DeMent returns with her ambitious sixth album, The Trackless Woods. Following up the warm-toned, Southern sounds of 2012's Sing the Delta, DeMent takes an unusual turn, adapting 18 poems by 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to music using little more than her piano and tremulous voice. Additional strains of guitar, pedal steel, and dulcimer accompany these windswept, often tragic songs, which were captured over a period of five days by co-producer Richard Bennett in the singer's living room.
There was a substantial eight-year gap between Iris Dement’s third and fourth albums, then another eight between the fourth and fifth. Fortunately for her fans this pattern has been broken, and The Trackless Woods, her sixth long-player, was recently released only three years after Sing the Delta. Such statistics of course mean little, although they do suggest Dement does not treat music as a casual endeavour, and perhaps in her case rightfully so: there is no other artist quite like her.
Country meets Russia, courtesy of one of the most distinctive singer-songwriters in the US. Iris DeMent isn’t exactly prolific; there was a 16-year gap before her 2012 album Sing the Delta. Now comes an 18-song concept work, influenced by her adopted Russian daughter, in which she sets to music the poetry of the remarkable Anna Akhmatova, who suffered the horrors of the Stalin era but refused to leave Russia despite being named an enemy of the state.
The songs on Iris DeMent's The Trackless Woods have been twice translated: once from Anna Akhmatova's native Russian to English, and then again, from poetry into song by Iris DeMent. What's remarkable is that the effect seems to be a gathering and augmentation of the meaning and poignancy in Akhmatova's poems, not a dilution. In DeMent's hands, Akhmatova's poetry is presented as sombre Southern nocturnes, evocative of a wide-skied rural American night.
By this point, Iris DeMent has been writing music for more than half her life. The 54-year-old singer released her debut Infamous Angel in 1992 to praise from the country, folk and Americana scenes, and her sophomore effort My Life even earned her a Grammy nomination. But in her 27 years of songwriting, DeMent has never attempted a project quite like The Trackless Woods before.
Iris DeMent performs at City Winery in Chicago, on Feb. 9, 2013. Iris DeMent recorded her latest album in her living room in five days with a group of friends, which sounds just about right. DeMent bides her time between albums until she feels fully invested in the music, and then plunges into it without making a big fuss.
Iris DeMent has made a living as a singer and songwriter of unsettling grace, with a voice that conveys love and truth in all their glory and sorrow. It’s not a stretch, then, to realize she found a kindred spirit in Anna Akhmatova, the late Russian modernist poet who survived her country’s unrest in the 20th century, and whose own work bore hallmarks similar to DeMent’s. For “The Trackless Woods,” DeMent set some of Akhmatova’s poems to music for a collection whose stark emotional resonance — often built around little more than the words, DeMent’s homespun warble, and a piano sometimes fleshed out by stringed instruments — is closely aligned to DeMent’s best work.