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Iris DeMent, 'Workin' on a World'

Iris DeMent's songs sound like heaven and earth meeting within one woman's searching sensibility. The Arkansas-born, Iowa-based folk legend has announced Workin' on a World, a new album that responds to the sociopolitical challenges that have risen up in the past few years. Its title track shows DeMent, in classic fashion, calling for a divine kind of secular intervention.

"Workin' on a World" recalls the gospel classic "Working on a Building," a testimony itself based around the Biblical idea that the human body is a temple to be maintained and improved for the glory of God. DeMent takes off from the hymn's foundation with a rollicking piano line and an earthy twist. Overwhelmed by her sense that "the world I took for granted was crashing to the ground," she contemplates her powerlessness in the face of her own mortality — she won't be around to see the changes today's activism might accomplish.

As the song's joyful energy builds, she realizes that freedom fighters since time immemorial have faced these odds. The song's key line ("I'm workin' on a world I may never see") shifts from a lament to a declaration, its passion reinforced by track producer Richard Bennett's muscular guitar lines and a joyful horn section. Climate activists often talk about the reality DeMent articulates; when change comes slow in the face of daunting odds, it can be tough to keep fighting. "Workin' on a World" is a hallelujah for the good done by those who lay the path toward good even if they may not walk its full length.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.