Like many singers in the roots rock genre, New Yorker-by-way-of-North Carolina Tift Merritt aspires to write like Lucinda and sing like Emmylou. Her plainspoken songs are both straightforward and ambiguous, as though no one emotion—grief, heartbreak, happiness, detachment—is absolute. And she sings those songs in a voice that sounds warm and sympathetic, but also a bit secretive, as though she might be withholding something crucial and precious from her listeners. That’s been more than enough to distinguish Merritt in a scene crowded with female singer/songwriters with similar aspirations and influences, even if none of her albums has quite captured those qualities with very much authority or consistency.
In that regard, Traveling Alone may be the record undecided voters have been waiting for. It not only shows her true lyrical and vocal range, but suggests an adventurous spirit beneath the placid surface. Venturing just beyond the gates of the Americana establishment, she recruited producer Tucker Martine, whose work with Laura Veirs, Abigail Washburn, and even The Decemberists demonstrates a keen understanding of how vocals interact with other instruments. Merritt’s backing band includes Jon Convertino of Calexico, one of the most underpraised drummers around, and Andrew Bird, who sings and plays violin on “Drifted Apart.” It’s a lovely duet, the album’s centerpiece. Their voices contrast fervently, hers precisely enunciative and his more a blur, and especially on the chorus, Bird’s vocals and violin enacts the whole idea of drifting apart. The songs sounds weightless, although its emotions are heavily weighted.
Musically, the theme of the album is striking out into new territory; lyrically, it’s about traveling alone. Merritt’s lyrics explore ideas of isolation and loneliness, and Martine establishes a ruminative mood on the opening title track, a bittersweet wisp of a song, and sustains that tone throughout the course of the tracklist. The band comes and goes, and they’re most convincing when they’re generating atmosphere (“Sweet Spot”) than when they’re rocking out (“Marks”). Most of the time, however, the players are careful not to compete with her vocals, and that might be a mistake. Too often the accompaniment settles for vaguely lovely when a bit more specificity and character might put a song like “Spring” across with more conviction. Still, this alone-in-a-crowd sound suits Merritt so well and makes Traveling Alone her best and most fully realized album yet.