Most of you probably won’t have heard of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko or her pen name, Anna Akhmatova. And neither had Iris DeMent until a friend lent her an anthology of her poems. Anna, who died in 1966, is regarded as one of Russia’s most acclaimed poets.
Writing throughout the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, World War II and the Stalin regime, she was in official disfavour for most of her life, with her writings condemned and censored by the Stalinist authorities (her most famous work, Requiem, concerns the Stalinist terror). One of her husbands was executed and another died in the gulag, to where her son was sent twice. Never owning her own home, she lived in others’ homes, often in extreme poverty, but refused to give in or emigrate, her poetry finding beauty in an ugly world. It’s no surprise the Russian people hold her in such awe.
Initially skimming through the book out of politeness, DeMent too was caught up by Akhmatova’s words and felt she had to put them to music, something compounded by the fact that she and her husband, Greg Brown, have an adopted Russian daughter, Dasha, and this, she felt, was a way to connect her two worlds.
The Trackless Woods is her first new work since 2012’s comeback, Sing The Delta. The project began with a piano and acoustic guitar setting of As A White Stone (“As a white stone in the well’s cool deepness, There lays in me one wonderful remembrance”). With the melodies pouring out, it culminated in this 18 strong collection, the lyrics taken from translations by Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin. The translations, remaining true to Anna’s rhyming style, perfectly lend themselves to musical settings.
The album was recorded live in a studio constructed in the singer’s Iowa living room with producer Richard Bennett. Although there’s a small backing band, it’s predominantly just DeMent and a piano, exclusively so on the four-line opener To My Poems, from whence comes the album title. The plaintive melodies draw upon DeMent’s Southern heritage, at times the hymns she would have heard in church, at others, reflecting the parlour songs and country tunes of her raising. They even introduce a touch of honky tonk on From An Airplane and colouring the beautiful piano hymnal All Is Sold with keening pedal steel.
And, of course, there is that unique DeMent warble, slightly reminiscent at times of the late Kate McGarrigle, but in a higher register, and one which, so quivering with emotion, I could listen to her singing the phone directory.
Unfortunately, the promotional CD had no accompanying booklet with musician credits or lyrics. However, DeMent’s calm, pure singing ensures every word is crystal clear. You can perfectly hear the sorrow, the pain, the joy and humanity embodied in such numbers as the choppy, mandolin-accompanied Listening To Singing, a strings-caressed Broad Gold about her “awkward childish verses”, Not With Deserters (cast almost as Confederate Civil War tune) and the calm acceptance of The Last Toast (“to the lips that betrayed me… to the world that seems so cruel”). Likewise, the saloon-piano waltzing Upon The Hard Crest, the humility of the superb Reject The Burden (“Humble yourself to be the meanest servant Of your worst enemy, and learn to call The brute beast of the forest ways your brother, And ask of God nothing, nothing at all”) and, surely striking a very personal note, the regret of a woman’s loss that imbues Lot’s Wife.
The album ends with a final piano ballad, DeMent’s voice soaring on Not With A Lover’s Lyre, a poem that seems to encapsulate the purpose behind much of Akhmatova’s writing (“It’s not with a lover’s lyre, not at all That I go around, attracting a crowd. But it’s the rattle with which lepers crawl That in my hands keeps singing aloud”) before, fittingly enough, closing with the poet herself and a brief recitation and, in Russian, of The Muse. So there you are, some cultural enlightenment and enrichment and an album of the year all in one perfect package.
Review by: Mike Davies
UK Release Date 7 Aug. 2015 via Flariella Records
Pre_order via Amazon