Since incorporating some vintage Southern soul into her repertoire on 2004's Grammy-endorsed Tambourine, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has settled further into a more predictable and far less distinctive brand of Americana on each new album, and that trend continues on Traveling Alone. Producer Tucker Martine, also behind 2010's See You on the Moon, adds only a handful of flourishes that distinguish Merritt's style from that of Kathleen Edwards, Caitlin Cary, Patty Griffin, or any of the countless other women on the Americana scene, while Merritt's songwriting here often lacks her trademark, bright-eyed wit. What's most shocking about Traveling Alone, however, is that Merritt's usually reliable voice is in such poor form that not even her singing can carry the album through its most tepid moments.
The opening title track immediately encapsulates most of what doesn't work about the album. The workmanlike strumming of an acoustic guitar grounds "Traveling Alone" as a midtempo shuffle, and, for a song that's ostensibly about finding oneself, the arrangement lacks any sense of momentum or movement. The majority of the album plods along with the same sluggishness, with songs like "Spring," "Sweet Spot," and "Too Soon to Go" all barely registering for their measured, deliberate politesse. With its plodding tempo and inconsequential production choices, "Feeling of Beauty" fares even worse, with only its lovely melody keeping it from playing like a lullaby.
Like far too many Americana acts, Merritt seems to have bought into the false assumption that music that tackles serious, mature subject matter has to sound ungodly dull, and that makes Traveling Alone especially disappointing in comparison to the singer's lively earlier work. A song like "Small Talk Relations" teems with palpable loneliness and boasts some of the album's most keenly observed lyrics, but its lumbering arrangement and Merritt's behind-the-beat vocal turn make the song drag on interminably. Because so many of the songs settle into the same lazy tempo and self-serious tone, the occasional moments of levity on the rollicking "Still Not Home" and cheery, Burt Bacharach-inspired "In the Way" feel jarring and atonal, even though they cover the same lyrical themes of displacement and self-discovery that run throughout the album.
Greater variety in its production may have elevated Traveling Alone above some of its more staid genre trappings, but it's ultimately Merritt's vocal performances that are the album's most significant liability. The discrepancy between the quality of her singing on her previous four albums and her performances here is inexplicable. On the title track, she's in tune on only a handful of notes, while she and duet partner Andrew Bird are so discordant on "Drifted Away" that they sound like they're singing in entirely different keys. Merritt has long been recognized for the warmth of her tone, but she's tinny and shrill throughout "Spring" and "To Myself." This is genuinely shocking to hear from a singer who had, until now, been one of the very best in modern country and folk. With her extraordinary voice having gone AWOL, and with her producer having evidently fallen asleep at the mixing board, Merritt can't overcome Traveling Alone's fundamental dreariness.