Tift Merritt and what she terms a “dream cast” of musicians – including guitarist Marc Ribot, Calexico drummer John Convertino, steel guitarist Eric Heywood and multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger – spent just eight days recording Traveling Alone. But save for a definitively loose vibe and unadorned instrumentation, it’s not obvious that the singer-songwriter’s fifth studio album came together so quickly. Traveling Alone is lovely and languid, preoccupied by restlessness of mind and body, and a deep desire to find a place to belong.
Merritt addresses these weighty crises with deft, precise lyrics. “I’m just looking for that sweet spot/ Where I can live the way that I want,” she sings on the twangy slow dance “Sweet Spot,” while “Small Talk Relations” is a low-lit soul-jazz number with piano and string swells on which she belts out, “‘Cause all of these small talk relations/ Lord, I need something real.” And on “Drifted Apart,” Andrew Bird’s trembling voice and violin shadow Merritt’s lead vocals, making relationship-fracturing lyrics such as “Nobody’s fault at all/ Baby, we’re drifting apart” that much more painful.
Traveling Alone‘s music is subtle enough to let Merritt’s lyrics shine, especially on the acoustic-based title track and the Emmylou Harris-like “Feeling Of Beauty.” But the album’s arrangements also play to the strengths of its musicians: “Still Not Home” is rollicking alt-country with Heywood’s wrinkled pedal steel at the forefront, while Ribot’s contributions – especially the bluesy licks on the otherwise sparse “Spring” and the jagged country riffs driving “To Myself” – cut to the quick. Merritt herself even takes to the piano for the jaunty pop of “In The Way,” a song determined to find a bright future (“One day, I’ll never be lonely/ Oh yeah, it will really be something”). Such hints of optimism balance out Traveling Alone‘s most wrenching songs – and explain why the album never becomes bogged down by its search for self.