After her sophomore effort, 2003’s Tambourine, scored a shocking, if well-deserved, Grammy nomination for Best Country Album, Tift Merritt seemed poised for the kind of breakthrough that few artists in the Americana scene ever achieve. But rather than rush into recording a follow-up, Merritt took a four-year hiatus, during which she holed up with a piano in a small flat in Paris. Immersing herself in a foreign culture—in a city where she knew all of two people and didn’t speak the language at all—gave Merritt the personal and creative freedoms that inform her third album, Another Country.
A departure from the Southern soul style of Tambourine, the album is more akin to her debut, 2001’s Bramble Rose, in that it’s a roots-oriented singer-songwriter record. It’s a testament to Merritt’s versatility that this doesn’t come across as regression. Instead, Country plays, for much of its running time, like a vintage Emmylou Harris album. Merritt’s songwriting here is some of her sharpest yet: Opener “Something to Me” boasts a powerful melody, while “Morning Is My Destination” and “Tender Branch” demonstrate a real refinement in her lyrics, which formerly had a tendency to lapse into overwritten, workshoppy imagery. Now she’s even comfortable writing in French, as closer “Mille Tendresses” is as straightforwardly lovely as anything she’s ever done.
What carried her prior two efforts through their handful of weaker songs was Merritt’s exceptional voice. With a timbre that lands at the midpoint between Harris and Caitlin Cary, Merritt is perhaps the warmest vocalist in contemporary country. She’s able to deliver a slightly melancholy song like lead single “Broken” and a soulful, horn-driven number like “Tell Me Something True” (the only song with a strong tie to Tambourine‘s soulful vibe) with equal conviction and an intuitive, thoughtful sense of phrasing.
That producer George Drakoulias seems hesitant to draw any attention away from Merritt’s voice is the only serious flaw to the album. Bogged down with a few too many mid-tempo, acoustic guitar shufflers, Country tends to drag. Tambourine was such a standout album in no small part because its hybrid of Americana and Dusty in Memphis-style soul gave the production a real sense of character, but this album lacks that same kind of vitality. When the horn section does finally show up, it seems in conflict with the rest of the album’s arrangements, which are, unfortunately, somewhat indistinct.
That said, Another Country is never less than an effortless, inviting listen by an artist who fully deserves to be a major star within her genre. But with the premier alt-country magazine No Depression dropping its print publication and with mainstream country radio still limiting the women on its playlists to Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, it’s hard to imagine that the album will build on the momentum Merritt had a couple of years ago. Still, if it isn’t Merritt’s commercial breakthrough, Another Country is a welcome return. For an artist of her caliber, that’s certainly something worth celebrating in its own right.