"Mixtape," the opening cut and first single from Tift Merritt's latest album, See You on the Moon, is arguably the most distinctive tune of the Raleigh-raised singer's four-record career. A serrated electric guitar chisels through staggered handclaps and kick drum—slinky and cool, like a kid with a new dose of self-assurance sashaying into a party of old, content friends. The strings dart through the rhythm, avoiding all the suspect patterns, while a second guitar reflects an elliptical series of notes as if locked in a hall of mirrors.
Lyrically and vocally, Merritt wears the music well, using a hand-decorated cassette to imply that love is a strange mix of giving, receiving and, ultimately, learning. And she sings with swagger, belting the big notes and letting her voice thin and sometimes crack, matching the strings with twists and surprises. After 2008's Another Country, Merritt fled alt-country's creative confines to record Moon with the more indie rock-oriented Tucker Martine, who has worked with Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists and his partner, Laura Veirs. "Mixtape," then, is the perfect gambit for Merritt—a confident departure, with an inarguably perfect hook.
Thing is, "Mixtape" is kind of an albatross, too. Not only is it a strong song, but Merritt uses it to boast of the music she's heard—"rare B-sides...Mazzy Star, Donovan's 'Colours.'" Essentially, she makes promises that, here, she doesn't keep. Merritt has made, respectively, a country record, a soul record and a Laurel Canyon siren record. See You on the Moon is a magpie of an album that's collected so many pretty things that the elements are rarely distinguishable. She's more conscribed to adult-contemporary pleasantries than ever before, and Moon languishes as a missed opportunity.
The mostly perfect front end is deceiving: "Engine to Turn," or track two, is a coltish burst, the drums steadily kicking up dust as Merritt gathers her strength. When the band emerges from the bridge for the third and final chorus, she's triumphantly leading a small choir: "The best I can is what I've got to give/ Gonna give it while I'm here." Its chaser, "The Things That Everybody Does," is an understated beauty, keys twinkling and strings cresting quietly beneath a guitar line that canters and pauses. Instead of being overly explicit with her message—Merritt married longtime friend, drummer and tour manager Zeke Hutchins last year—she smartly illustrates her point by pairing extremes. She still loves youthful fantasy—"from the wings of a unicorn's breast/ my typewriter strapped with diamonds to my chest"—but the annals of practicality—"my hands in my pockets deep as they'd go"—have helped her find a home.
Moon quickly slides into all of the obvious tropes, though. "Never Talk About It" drifts as if guided by its titular anxious calm, its bland arrangement comprised of keyboard trickles, stock strings and guitar creak. It's nearly a minute too long, tailed with an extended coda that's little more than a soft bed for the DJ of a soft rock radio station. "Live Till You Die" summons Sheryl Crow and Linda Ronstadt, quavering in collaboration, while "Papercut" feigns a swampy funk before gliding above bland synthesizer chills.
The closing triptych—the weepy, Lanois-roiling title track, a graceful cover of the Anne Murray-popularized "Danny's Song" and the teenage-murderer-in-Manhattan piano number "After Today"—turns the exit into treacle, where that early confidence, coolness and craft Merritt combined so strongly comes traded for easy thrills and snappy headlines. Moon, at its best, proves Merritt is capable of sounding exactly and brilliantly like herself. Would it were the rule, not the exception.