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"So much breaks, wears down, fails in us," the poet Marge Piercy once wrote. "We must forgive our broken promises — their sharp shards in our hands." But it's difficult to be that generous toward disappointment. It's so much simpler to keep on guarding a sublime ideal, to rail against a letdown, to reject a ravaged expectation by submerging in melancholy. That's what makes the forgiving qualities of Tift Merritt's new album, Stitch Of The World, so welcome.
A dozen years ago, Merritt was mentioned in virtually every journalistic roundup of rising talent in the alt-country and Americana scenes. She grew into an exceptionally sure-footed singing and songwriting voice, as well as a sympathetic collaborator to the likes of classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and sophisticated folk minds Andrew Bird and M.C. Taylor. Along the way, Merritt's also become a wonderful kind of musical veteran — one who's attentive to the capriciousness of her own inspiration while allowing herself time and space to tease out her ideas.
In the self-penned bio for this, her sixth studio album, Merritt dispels the myth of a frictionless artistic process. "Let's be clear about something," she writes. "What made my time off special was that I had a regular writing routine. I was private. I followed my heart and my craft. The story of being a writer is the story of being devoted over a long time. What I hate most about bios is that they trade the small virtue of the writing life for pretending that artists and albums spring forth fully formed, trimming the tale to fit the spotlight."
It's clear that Merritt was unconcerned with unfurling a tidy, unified narrative. Instead, her album, which she produced with Iron and Wine's Sam Beam, carefully collects contradictions that trail behind disillusionment. With wry, talking-blues affection, she contrasts inexperience and scarred worldliness in "Dusty Old Man," whose shambling groove gains its shape from drummer Jay Bellerose's pleasingly capricious outbursts. "Heartache Is An Uphill Climb" starts off more gingerly. Once Merritt's performance gathers steam, the song turns into a strong-willed, AM soul-pop tune that portrays heartache not as a season to be passively endured so much as one to be slowly, strenuously overcome. In "Love Soldiers On," she marvels at the irrationality and tenacity of once-trampled love. "Lock it out and don't return its call," she sings with weary longing. "Swear you don't know its face at all / Throw it in the river, lose it in the storm / It will show up in its bandages tomorrow at your door."
Merritt's version of "Icarus" is not Greek mythology's tragic tale of hubris, but rather an expression of the impulse to cradle a fragile spirit and nurse it back to health. She phrases the melody as if it were a feather lifting and spiraling on the breeze, until guitarist Marc Ribot and pedal-steel player Eric Heywood join her in the billowy refrain, "Everything flies, everything flies." In "Wait For Me," one of three tracks that feature Beam's harmonies, Merritt sings in cursive, cascading lines of two battered souls determined to treat themselves and each other well in a fresh go-round. Disappointment and desire, regret and equanimity coexist in Merritt's sensuous meditations. Within them, she gives her listeners room to breathe.