critic’s pick: tift merritt, “stitch of the world”

There is a wonderfully emotive and stylistic shift roughly three quarters of the way through Tift Merritt’s new “Stitch of the World” album so pronounced that it’s a wonder the eruption doesn’t register on the Richter scale.

It begins as the contemplative “Icarus,” a tune less about mythologic happenstance and more about personal healing, lulls you in. First there is the plaintive tone of Merritt’s singing and piano, a ghostly reflection of longing that has permeated much of her Americana-and-more music over the past decade. Enter then guitarist Marc Ribot and pedal steel pro Eric Heywood to accent the song’s mood. But once all that settles in, the introspection implodes and the jagged electric strut of “Proclamation Bones” takes its place with a booming balance of doom and chance (“the fate of man is still unclear, so why don’t you come meet me here tonight”), usurping the album’s settled ambience for an all out electric jamboree.

Those are just two of the highpoints of “Stitch of the World,” a record Merritt formulated in the midst of a personal crossroads that included a divorce and the impending birth of her daughter as well as a series of artistic collaborations with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and pop stylists Andrew Bird and M.C. Taylor. Adding to the scope of “Stitch of the World” was co-production help from Iron and Wine chieftain Sam Beam.

What all this boils down to is a fascinating album that is just that – a scrapbook of sounds, feelings and narratives as opposed to a conceptual song cycle, which many recordings, often unintentionally, come across as. “What strikes me most when I am writing these days is the changing nature of things,” Merritt states in her self-scribed bio for the “Stitch of the World.”  “Sometimes sex matters deeply, sometimes family eclipses all; sometimes aloneness is hell, sometimes it is a refuge.  Sometimes hometowns are constricting; sometimes they are a sight for sore eyes.”

That helps explain the quietly anthemic and affirmative stance of “My Boat” (one of several tunes on the record that reflects the tone and temperament of Emmylou Harris), the jangly, foot stomping charge of “Dusty Old Man” and the deceptive serenity that envelopes the closing three songs (“Something Came Over Me,” “Eastern Light” and especially “Wait for Me”) that prominently feature Beam.

Unsettling yet graceful, poignant yet plaintive, folkish in reflection yet unapologetically giddy in electric attitude, “Stitch of the World” is a grand pastiche. But despite the seeming disparity, Merritt emerges in full command of the beautiful yet troubled civilization she has stitched together.

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