Tift Merritt: “Another Country”
Tift Merritt has been dodging Dusty Springfield comparisons ever since her debut album, Bramble Rose, but, with her third record, Another Country, a more suitable comparison might be latter-day Emmylou Harris (think Stumble Into Grace and even Wrecking Ball)– not in sound so much as in spirit. Like Harris, Merritt is an artist who has long played under the broad umbrella of great American songcraft, but, despite critics’ attempts to peg Bramble Rose as a twangy alt-country affair and Tambourine as a soulful roots-rock platter, she’s never seemed particularly attached to any particular genre. She’s informed by the past and respectful of tradition, but her vision is too singular and unique to be confined to any given genre. So, like those Emmylou Harris records, Another Country sounds a bit like liberation, and a lot like a culmination of everything that’s come before it. This isn’t alt-country, or rock, or even folk music– what it is is bold, personal, and graceful, the sound of a skilled artist pushing her art into a whole new realm of possibilities.
That all this can be said of Merritt after just three albums is itself reason enough for her fans to rejoice. Indeed, Another Country sounds in some ways like the work of an older, more experienced artist; it’s strikingly powerful and emotive music, speaking to the human condition on some very basic levels, but it’s also understated, subtle, and restrained. Don’t expect many songs to employ the same soulful horns that made Tambourine such a spirited affair; for the most part, these songs emphasize voice, lyric, and melody, with dynamic arrangements and the interplay between band members providing texture and nuance, making for a rich record that’s impeccably crafted but also emotionally deep and complex. First single “Broken” is a fine example; Merritt has enough confidence in the song to let it speak for itself, so there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles to draw attention to itself, but after just a couple of listens, the hook pulls you in and the lyric keeps you there.
If there is a particular genre she’s drawing from here, it might be the classic singer-songwriter albums from their glory days in the 1970s; perhaps the slightly faded album cover is a sort of homage. But that comparison also applies more to the spirit of the album than to its sound, because Merritt draws from many places within the rich body of American music– country rock (“Something to Me”), piano ballads (“Another Country”), lilting folk (“Hopes Too High”), driving R&B (“Morning is My Destination”), swaggering rock (“My Heart is Free”), and more. For the most part, though, these genre distinctions are loose at best, as Merritt draws on whatever the songs call for without feeling like she has to play hard and fast by the conventions and rules of the genre. And that’s what makes her such a formidable artist, and Another Country such a thrilling record: Genre rules are subservient to her own particular creative vision, and she knows that it’s the songs– not the style– that always comes first.
And they’re a terrific batch of songs, too; in fact, she one-ups both Springfield and Harris, both of whom are known more as song interpreters than songwriters (though Harris did pen the excellent songs on Stumble into Grace). All of these tracks are originals, and all of them were written while Merritt was on holiday in France, trying to find some meaning in the abrupt termination of her relationship with Lost Highway Records. It is, then, an intensely personal album, and even the song titles reflect its soul-searching mood– “Morning is My Destination,” “I Know What I’m Looking For Now,” “Tell Me Something True,” “My Heart is Free.” It’s a rewarding song cycle about– among other things– The Search. Themes of identity, of calling as an artist, of seeking truth and finding happiness, of discovering who you are and where you need to be, of learning from failures and being able to pick up the pieces– Merritt weaves all of these into an evocative and poetic set of songs that’s deeply personal and unquestionably universal at the same time.
And not only are the songs great, but they’re given the best possible environment here. Merritt has grown leaps and bounds as a vocalist, though you might not notice at first, because she doesn’t try to show off those impressive pipes quite the way she did on Tambourine; she gives a more intimate performance here, with emphasis on phrasing rather than power, and, condequently, she’s never sounded less like Dusty (or more like Emmylou). Her studio band– which includes Charlie Sexton– makes these songs simmer and sing with warm, organ-drenched arrangements, gentle and understated but lively and full of heart. Producer George Drakoulias knows when to keep things sparse and simple (as on the title track), and he knows when to let the band work a good groove, as on the instrumental outro of “Keep You Happy”– one of many moments of stark, stunning beauty. He even knows when to play up a song’s hooks– as on “Broken”– without bogging it down with unnecessary studiocraft, allowing the songs to breathe and shine all on their own.
The album that results is, in many ways, perfectly symbolized by the album cover– warm and perhaps a bit weary, but cheery all the same. It’s the sound of real hope born out of real hardship, and it’s the most real and the most beautiful album Merritt has yet made– but even more importantly, it’s the most joyful, and, for that reason alone, it’s both enthralling and delightful, challenging and inspiring, from the very first note to the very last.