Iris Dement’s new album is both right in line with all the music she’s ever made and unlike anything else she’s accomplished in an already iconoclastic career.
What makes "The Trackless Woods" consistent with her previous work is its dominant instruments: piano and voice. Dement chords along throughout in her signature country-gospel style, and her remarkable moaning twang remains as distinctive and hurt-your-heart expressive as any singer’s, ever.
What’s different about "The Trackless Woods" is that it finds this one-time resident of both sides of our state line singing selected poetry by the twentieth century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
Dement has been candid in interviews about how difficult it can be for her to write songs — or not to write them, as it’s mostly played out over the past twenty years — that she believes are good enough to share with the world. The expectation of fans and critics who want new Dement songs, she's said, has been a burden she's been anxious both to accept and escape. In a sense, this kind-of-sort-of collaboration — words by Anna (who died in 1966); music by Iris — is a way for her to accomplish both.
It makes sense, then, that several of the Akhmatova poems Dement sets to music here are about the often vexing process of artistic creation itself: “To My Poems,” “Listening to Singing,” and “Songs about Songs.” As if to underscore the mysteriousness of that process, the album concludes with Akhmatova’s own dolorous recitation of her poem “The Muse.” It is beautiful. Unless you speak Russian, it is unknowable, as well.
For the most part Dement doesn’t turn Akhmatova’s poems into songs so much as provide musical settings for her ways of reading or performing what remains essentially poetry. The feeling of openness, of outreach, that’s foundational to popular music regardless of genre, and a key to Dement’s earlier work — we can sing along; we may want to move or tap our feet — is downplayed here, deliberately.
This is not a problem, though, because she maintains with great success the inward, interior, to-be-considered quality of the page. Listeners probably won’t want to hum or dance to Dement’s latest, but they may very well be motivated to read the original poems, to compare them to Dement’s interpretations and to contemplate both deeply.
Akhmatova’s “trackless woods,” and Dement’s versions (the title phrase comes from “To My Poems,” just one-minute-and-15 seconds long) feel as if they have been posted “Private” by their owners. We move within them aware that we are emotional trespassers of a sort, which is not at all to say we’re unwelcome.
The most successful tracks here are the ones where Dement allows herself the greatest poetic license. On “Listening to Singing,” “The Souls of All My Dears” and “From an Aiprlane,” Dement repeats lines that don’t repeat in Akhmatova’s originals, adds lots of rhythm and moans plenty of wordless cries that are all pure Dement. It is on these numbers where Akhmatova’s work, already translated from Russian to English, is more completely translated again by Dement from poem to song.
For “The Souls of All My Dears,” for instance, Dement has pulled a handful of lines from Akhmatova's much longer “Requiem,” but supplemented those with lines from her other poems. Dement repeats and edits lines as she needs and delivers the most evocative “oohs” you’ve ever heard. When she returns to them at the end of each stanza, these cries become a kind of chorus and point to all the tangled life that even the sharpest of our words can’t penetrate.
At the track’s close, Dement trudges carefully through a prayer of gratitude from what feels like a spiritual prison:
Thank God there’s no one left for me to lose.
There’s no one left to lose.
No one left to lose.
It is Dement’s imperfectly-human-and-perfectly-humane voice that makes certain we comprehend she is singing here not only about loss but about a new landscape of freedom, previously unimagined and about to be charted.