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.