Music

Tift Merritt: Another Country

Another Country is nothing short of stunning in its candor, simplicity, and grace.


Tift Merritt

Another Country

Label: Fantasy
US Release Date: 2008-02-26
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Tift Merritt's last album, Tambourine, brought with it a mixture of blessings and curses. On the positive side, it was a young artist's dream come true. Only two albums into her career, Merritt was working with the A-list of roots-rock: Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, the respected producer George Drakoulias... When the album finally came out, it was universally praised by critics who noted that Merritt could effortlessly jump from one genre to another, whether it be Memphis soul, Springsteen-style folk, rousing classic-rock, or plaintive alt-country. Add to this the fact that Tambourine was nominated for the 2004 Grammy for Country Album of the Year, and you can see that Merritt was one lucky young lady.

Or was she? After the critical accolades died down and Merritt toured the album for years, she was dropped from her label, Lost Highway. To be dropped from a label is difficult enough, but to be dropped from a label known for fostering true talent after releasing an album that was on every best-of list of 2004? That must have been hard to digest. When Merritt recently talked to PopMatters about her experience, she was nothing but gracious and thankful to her former label, but one thing was clear: something left her so tired and disillusioned that she briefly considered giving up music altogether.

In the end, this experience was rather fortunate. Renting a flat in Paris to relax and regroup, Merritt found that it is simply in her nature to turn her experiences and encounters into song. While the purpose of staying overseas was to get away from her life and career, she ended up running right back into them. Thank goodness she did. Another Country, the resulting album, is nothing short of stunning in its candor, simplicity, and grace. Following up on an album like Tambourine would be daunting for an artist of any caliber, but Merritt does so with poise befitting of Audrey Hepburn.

If you’re expecting an album anything like Tambourine, you will be disappointed. Get that album, as spectacular as it is, out of your head before seriously listening to Another Country. Unlike its predecessor, this album does not strut its stuff by leaping from genre to genre. Nor does it go out of its way to impress. Ironically, that is what makes this album such a refreshing and honest listen. This isn't the sound of a great talent trying to sound well-versed. It’s the sound of an artist working through her life through her art, clinging to what she knows best to survive emotional upheaval.

At first, the contrast is startling, if not slightly disappointing. Where's the soul songstress who sounded like a long-lost artist of the Stax era? Where's the classic-rock spark plug who charged through a song with aplomb and bravado? She's not here, folks, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you will appreciate the sound of this album. Only a couple of tracks, such as "My Heart Is Free", approach the main-stage sound of their predecessors. If Tambourine was Merritt's attempt at the big time, this is her confessional album -- and it's a damn nice one at that. From the first song, “Something to Me”, you'll notice that these songs are quieter, softer, and, for the most part, slower. Whereas the production was big, sometimes bombastic, on Tambourine, everything here is pushed behind Merritt's voice, and it may take you quite a few listens to notice that there's an organ or lead guitar on a track. That's a big part of this album's allure. It takes time to discover its many rewards.

Lyrically, the album is immeasurably more intimate than Merritt's previous work. She has always drawn from her life when writing songs, but here the words are more focused, honest, and direct. Because of this tightened scope, the lyrics take on a poetic quality, transforming everyday images into symbols of profound, and sometimes painful, truths. The title cut is a perfect example. Using the idea of being in another country as an extended metaphor for the search for love, Merritt captures how hard it often is to bridge the distance between longing and loving. In the song, the narrator is so far removed from love that she can only imagine it as a foreign place: “And you can just hold onto me / Strangers in another country.”

As a whole, the album possesses a hopeful, albeit weary, tone. Sprinkled throughout are hints that the experiences that left Merritt disillusioned and disappointed eventually led to the realization that happiness is to be found from within, not from without. In “Broken”, the narrator discovers her own resolve, noting, “I'm broken and I don't understand / What is broken falls into place once again.” The overall statement of the album is found in “I Know What I'm Looking for Now”. “All of these miles I've come,” the narrator muses, “All of these dreams I've chased in my mind / All for something so small and simple to find.” Merritt was clearly searching for meaning and connection while writing this album, and like most great works of art, these songs don't provide answers so much as inspire contemplation.

Merritt may have wanted to leave music behind because of all the pressures that come with being a musician who's both immensely talented and devoted to craft, but Another Country is a testament to what she can do with those pressures pushed aside. True, this album is much less likely to make her a household name than Tambourine, but who gives a damn? Certainly not Merritt. Not anymore. And neither will you once you live with this album for a while. You'll be too busy enjoying the process of unveiling its subtle, beautiful rewards.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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