February 29, 2008

Album Review: Tift Merritt - Another Country

The question of whether or not the best art comes from suffering has sustained for time immemorial. Of course, having the talent to facilitate such distinction factors into the issue as well, but countless artists in all fields and genres have indeed produced sublime and lasting works in the throes of distress. With her third album, Another Country, singer/songwriter Tift Merritt joins this ubiquitous array of artists by not only summoning poignant and beautiful music out of anguish, but also in delivering her finest album to date.

The young woman who lit out like a Southern spitfire on her two previous albums, Bramble Rose and Tambourine, now is disillusioned and highly introspective. She says so in some rather touching liner notes, but you can just as easily hear it on the album. She's insecure yet disarmingly unguarded with fresh hurt in her voice, an indication that – in the writing and singing of these songs – she's working something through.

A warm reflection of its contemplative tone, much of the album’s music harvests lilting, modest melodies. “Tender Branch" bends and sways like its title suggests while “Keep You Happy” aches with unmistakable longing. “Hopes Too High” and “Broken” are both underscored by some particularly agile guitar work. Throughout, piano and subtle string progressions cradle Merritt’s inherently sensual vocals, which fluctuate from delicate to determined in their timbre and strength.

Merritt's honey-soaked voice, above all, is what distinguishes this album as exceptional. Even at her most discouraged, she imparts such an unassuming amount of sultriness that her often-melancholy perspective winds up personalizing each song’s impact to a penetrating extent. Her wistful, come-hither inflections on “Morning Is My Destination” are enough to make you put on “Breakfast In Bed” from Dusty In Memphis for an analogous comparison. And her sad yearning for love on “Another Country” feels more and more passionate upon each listen, making it one of the most absorbing songs on the album.

In her liner notes, Tift Merritt writes about how, in a time of personal turmoil, she emigrated to France (hence the album title and its thematic symbolism). Though she doesn’t come clean on what exactly she left behind, it was enough to encourage a new environment in which to reassess her life. And while reading her passage isn’t necessary to appreciate the album, it does offer a stirring impression that invariably puts this music into sharper context. Another Country, quite simply, is Tift Merritt’s gorgeous and compelling response to her own crushed spirit.