Tift Merritt puts forth a vision that's as unguarded as it is unlimited.
The stories surrounding Stitch of the World, Tift Merritt's most recent album, make up their narrative, with divorce, relocation, and childbirth at the center of the tale. The influences of and experiences with other musicians like Iron & Wine's Sam Beam and Hiss Golden Messenger's MC Taylor fill out a cast for a worthy story. But Merritt's gift for the record has been to write a series of songs that sound personal without relying on anything autobiographical. There's no reason to try to read the artist into the album, and yet the songs are individual, a capturing of Merritt's vision that's unguarded and inviting without being limited.
“Love Soldiers On” could serve as a guiding focus. It's a classic country song with a straightforward encouragement. It's a natural sentiment in its way, but Merritt's delivery and her sturdy arrangement keep the song confident without losing a grounding in realism. It sounds like optimism learned in challenging circumstances rather than read on a poster.
If Merritt's tightening her writing, it might be connected to following some good inspiration. One of the album's highlights, “My Boat” is a reworking of a Raymond Carver poem of the same title. Rather than setting his words to music, though, Merritt's whittled it down to a precise statement of the significance of the vessel -- best captured as “no one will be denied on my boat” -- delivered over a rolling beat. It feints at the anthemic while creating an earworm while feeling effortless.
The album as a whole sounds easy but never simple. Guitarist Marc Ribot and pedal steel player Eric Heywood fit their parts together to create most of the atmosphere, with Ribot's work remaining as restrained as it is smart. Drummer Jay Bellerose keeps his playing unobtrusive but unpredictable, keeping the album familiar within its creativity.
“Stitch of the World” puts the pieces together. The music has more pieces than are initially noticeable, everything locking together to help Merritt develop a complex bit of imagery. The band shows its flexibility with an almost-rocker like “Proclamation Bones” or the bluesy groove of “Dusty Old Man”. It's a group as comfortable with each other as they are with following Merritt's direction.
The final three songs feature Beam, who's developing his skill as a duet partner (see last year's album with Jesca Hoop). The three tracks explore sudden happiness, backward-looking sadness, and dreamy hope. Closing number “Wait for Me” marks a fitting end for the album, declaring a willingness to “do right” in partnership, sung clearly as a pair. Through struggle and change, Merritt's willingness to push through regret to something brighter echoes back as an acknowledgment that love does indeed soldier on, not without effort or trial, but in a way that allows us to keep pushing for something better. It's strong finish to an album that -- biography aside -- reveals the strength of merging personal vision with cooperative expression.