Tift Merritt Mixes Quirky Metaphors And Folk Sounds On 'Stitch Of The World'

Feb 15, 2017
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of a new album by Tift Merritt. She's been praised as a skilled subtle singer since the release of her debut album in 2002. She said that her new album, "Stitch Of The World," came out of a period of transition, referring to a divorce, turning 40 and being six months pregnant during the recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUSTY OLD MAN")

TIFT MERRITT: (Singing) Loved my mouth and he loved my hips. He said my mind make no difference, he won't back down and he won't (unintelligible). Oh, he's mean as a snake. He's my dusty old man. He's mean as a snake. He's my dust old man.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Tift Merritt's soft, chalky voice rubs across the bluesy rock 'n' roll guitar of Marc Ribot in that song, "Dusty Old Man." It's one of the few up-tempo songs on an album that is more often about the quiet contemplations of conflicting feelings, wanting to be alone versus seeking connections with people - friends, lovers, strangers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASTERN LIGHT")

MERRITT: (Singing) Light on the water makes it look easy to be free. My dream waves back to you. You wave back to me out in eastern light on the open wind. Those days come rushing back when the tide changes. And still my shadow's waiting for you like it always used to. Hang around and look in behind me so that you can find me in eastern light.

TUCKER: There's a lot of folk music in the sound of this album. Acoustic guitar and the occasional faint cry of a pedal steel guitar frame Merritt's vocals. Her own piano playing also works well giving her phrasing a stark showcase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTACHE IS AN UPHILL CLIMB")

MERRITT: (Singing) How does the (unintelligible) give the knife and the pride forget the fight? The one that laid it down so low, the one still throwing tall shadows. Come on, tell me. I heard that it was step by step. Oh, it takes time, time, time. The going that is slow, slow, slow. Heartache is an uphill climb.

TUCKER: After listening to it a few times, what struck me most forcefully about the new album are the metaphors she uses for the complications of love. Her comparisons are quirky, sometimes odd and surprising ones. On the song I just played, "Heartache Is An Uphill Climb," she makes love one long, tough slog up a hill of resistance, or perhaps indifference. The bones in the song "Proclamation Bones" prove to be the stems of lilies, and thus flowers that have been calcified, hardened to match the hard heart that's being sung about.

And in love soldiers on, she makes the comparison of romance to a battered warrior who persists, despite daunting obstacles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SOLDIERS ON")

MERRITT: (Singing) Bruised up and skinny as a stick, no one I know so underpaid. Been around the block about a hundred times today. Won't leave you alone no matter what you say. Love soldiers on. Love soldiers on. There's nothing you can do. Love will soldier on.

TUCKER: Merritt interested in other people's metaphors as well. She set another writer's poem to music here, "My Boat," written by the late Raymond Carver, whose short stories and poems were characterized by an unadorned directness. Merritt reads Carver's "My Boat" as a vision of both escape and inclusion. The narrator is having a boat built that will take him and his friends away from the troubles of the world.

Merritt quotes some of the lines whole but more often cracks the spine of the poem to make it easier to paraphrase it and to force the poetry to align with a simple melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOAT")

MERRITT: (Singing) My boat's being made to order. Right now it's at the builder. My boat, my friends, room onboard for my friends. I'm serious about this. My boat. George, Gary, Chuck and Jim, room enough for all of them and my baby on my boat. No one will be denied on my boat, on my boat. Getting (unintelligible) out on my boat, on my boat. Just having a real good time on my boat, on my boat, on my boat, my boat.

TUCKER: The image Tift Merritt uses as the title of the album "Stitch Of The World" is one that knits together rivers and mountains, shadows and sunshine, to form a blanket over the world. As such, it's also a dream of comfort and security, the kind of comfort and security Merritt would like to think is always present, even if its warmth is often too elusive, too fleeting.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an interview with Lieutenant General Harold Moore, who died last Friday. The battle he led in Vietnam is the subject of the book "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young." In the film adaptation, Moore was portrayed by Mel Gibson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.