A Grammy nomination for Best Country record (for 2004’s Tambourine) notwithstanding, I’m not sure Tift Merritt has ever made a straight country record. Tambourine is best described as a soul record, of all things, while 2008’s Another Country turned to Charlie Sexton for its guitar work. But the “country” label seems to stick, possibly because Merritt’s voice can range from straightforward Linda Ronstadt to ethereal Emmylou Harris. If you try to compare Merritt’s vocals to someone else, you inevitably find yourself shopping in the country genre.
See You On the Moon marks Merritt’s fourth record (not counting the strong Buckingham Solo live disc), and may be one of her most subtle efforts yet. There’s little bombast (despite the occasional blast of strings), and not many frills to distract the listener from the heart of some pretty unassuming songs. In true Merritt fashion, though, many of Moon‘s songs are growers, revealing themselves slowly. The soaring “Feel of the World” (featuring backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James) stands as something of a letter from Merritt’s deceased grandfather to her recently passed grandmother. The title track, sung with a delicacy that evokes Emmylou Harris, is a gentle farewell to a departed childhood friend.
Such fare might make you think that the album is a depressing product of the conditions under which it was made, as Merritt and two other band members lost grandparents during the recording. However, it was also a time of weddings, so the record really stands as a mixture of gentle farewells and optimism.
Throughout her career, even when she’s writing about broken relationships (such as Moon‘s “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight”), Merritt has exhibited humanity and faith in the hopeful feeling that we all have when we embark on something new. That joy of life is on fine display as the album opens. “Mixtape” comes in on slightly funky guitar as Merritt revels in the art of making a handmade mixtape for a flame, and the song blossoms into uplifting, old-school strings. “Engine to Turn” opens with a confession—“I don’t know how to fix the world / I don’t even know how to fix myself yet”—before proclaiming, “Sometimes there’s a choir in my head / Singing at the top of their voice / Singing at the top of their voice / They sing ‘Don’t look back. Don’t be scared’”.
Moon is Merritt’s most intimate-sounding record yet, so it runs the risk of letting its low-key virtues slip by the listener. A simple remedy I found for that was to simply turn up the volume. While Moon seems like a record best appreciated in the quiet dark, it really opens up and breathes when it’s allowed to make a little noise. This is most apparent on the more meditative tracks, where the twangy flourishes of the title track can ring clearly, or where the woodwinds of “The Things That Everybody Does” can roam. And for the record’s few rockers, it brings out some unexpected snarl. “Papercut” is obviously a highlight, with its funky guitar line and hard backbeat, but it takes on an almost anthemic quality when played a little more loudly.