There are a dozen moments on Tift Merritt’s sixth album, Stitch of the World, that testify to her ability to craft moving words about the moments that make up a life. But perhaps the funniest and simplest comes early on, in “Dusty Old Man,” the opening song: “This world can’t hand you what you want,” Merritt sings, her voice a little gritty, a little sweet. “Sometimes all you can do is say goddamn.”
“I don’t have the need to pretend my work isn’t about my life,” Merritt says with a laugh from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I think life is mysterious enough … a song is a picture; a life is a constantly moving film.”
The movie of Merritt’s life became a complicated one while making Stitch of the World. She began writing the record at a friend’s ranch in Marfa, Texas, after her marriage to longtime drummer Zeke Hutchins dissolved. By the time she finished making the record with co-producer Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, she had moved from her Greenwich Village apartment in New York to Raleigh, where she grew up, and was pregnant with her first child. Somehow, the record manages to capture all the uncertainty, joy, hesitation, and bewilderment of a life in motion.
“I was sort of writing to stay alive,” Merritt says. “That sounds dramatic, but when you’re a writer and you go through something that you don’t have perspective on, you write about it.”
Merritt’s attention to craft is evident on Stitch of the World. While her career stretches back to the early 2000s — when she toured with Ryan Adams and recorded with a couple of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers — the album demonstrates the way her record-making has grown wilier and more satisfying. Early on, she fit comfortably into the “alt-country” category, but Stitch of the World is a more fluid album, blending R&B, soft rock, country, folk, and rock ’n’ roll into a diverse palette suited for as much expression as Merritt can muster.
She musters a lot: Rockers like “Dusty Old Man” and “Proclamation Bones,” featuring drummer Jay Bellarose and guitarist Marc Ribot, show off her rowdy side; her gospel-tinged ballads “Heartache Is An Uphill Climb” and “Love Soldiers On” shimmer with gentle strength. On the sublime “My Boat,” she adapts a Raymond Carver poem, singing with a kind of barely restrained glee, “No one will be denied on my boat.”
“You don’t find a lot of joyful celebration in Raymond Carver’s work,” Merritt says of the short story author and poet. “You might get some fishing — that’s his jubilance.”
But reading “My Boat,” Merritt could imagine Carver’s enthusiasm, picture him rubbing his hands together, thinking about his boat being built, daydreaming about all the good times to come floating on it: days spent fishing, listening to the Rolling Stones. On Carver’s boat, there’s room for his friends, room for his baby. Room for everything.
Merritt’s songs chisel out a similar space, one big enough to hold doubts and hopes, to let each weigh equally, the way they do in the moment. Like Carver, she’s not interested in wrapping things up neatly. Merritt sings most about life’s ambiguity. “Dashboard sunshine / driving west / gonna find something / I ain’t found yet,” she sings on album closer “Wait For Me.”
“As you go on, you’re able to write truer and more closely, in a more revealing way — in a more honest way — and that is actually the point,” Merritt says, laughing. “That’s kind of all you can do. Maybe that was my reveal: Perspective is an illusion that reinvents itself over and over again. We don’t have perspective.”
Tift Merritt is scheduled to perform Monday, May 8, at Musical Instrument Museum.