It isn’t hard to fall for Tift Merritt, and not just for the obvious, superficial reasons. I recall back in 2005 when she was making the rounds for Tambourine, her album shepherded by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and producer George Drakoulias (The Black Crowes); she was lumped into silly lists like “New Country Honeys” and the like. Most of the ladies on the list were being molded into new Nashville commodities, the next Shania, or the next Faith Hill. What those reports ignored was Merritt’s compositions and her malleable voice — breathy and intimate one moment, then rocking the rafters the next. Five years later, most of the artists on those lists have drifted into obscurity while Merritt has only made advance after advance.
No surprise, then, that See You on the Moon opens with nothing less than a blue-eyed soul track. Yes, “Mixtape” is slightly more spare than you would expect, but the tune’s DNA has more than a few strands of Memphis in it. “Engine to Turn” is a window-down singalong that never gives everything away, the percussion consisting of what sounds like handclaps and a sack of coins never traipses into the predictable drum slam. By the end of the song, it is all about the voices, culminating in something that is certainly orchestrated but equally handmade.
The sense of economy that pervades the entire recording is almost shocking; in the face of a lot of new music where there is not a single digital bit left for space or atmosphere, Moon provides a lot of tell-tale indications that the music was made by humans in a room. When the song requires a bigger canvas, such as “Feel of the World,” the contrast gives the composition an even greater scope — and when the next track, “Never Talk About It,” comes on, it’s almost as if Merritt is sitting next to you. If there is a misstep, and it could hardly be categorized as a total slip, it is “Live Till You Die,” which has the uncomfortable itch of “I Hope You Dance”-style bumper-sticker philosophizing. It’s not a bad track, but up to that moment Merritt’s work has been moody and singular, and such an easy sentiment comes across as a calculation. I found myself forgiving fairly quickly because it stands out as the big rock ‘n roll moment on the album, and it makes no sense to deny its charms on critical semantics. At only 43 minutes, the album is done, but there is a completeness to the whole that leaves the listener neither worn out nor short-changed.
It is the mass of contradictions that makes See You on the Moon a pleasure to listen to, a country record that single-mindedly staves off predictability, a pop record that hasn’t even a wisp of automation, made by a true singer-songwriter adept at both and not merely wearing a sash like some “New Country Honey” that stumbled out of the pageant. It’s new music with a solid, old fashioned feel. It wouldn’t be hard at all to fall for Tift Merritt, and with See You on the Moon as the catalyst, why fight it?
See You on the Moon is available from Amazon.