Traveling Alone arrives exactly a decade after Bramble Rose, the 2002 major-label debut from Tift Merritt. Merritt was a coltish singer-songwriter with roots in Chapel Hill and Raleigh; she infused earnest, sophisticated country-soul with a disarmingly warm, inherently bracing tone, and there was talk that it would make her famous. On the cover of that entrée for Lost Highway Records, Merritt wore a leather jacket and dug her hands deep into her pockets, as if defending herself against an unseen gale. She was poised, it seemed, for popularity.

Merritt returns to Yep Roc Records, the same area label that released her early collaboration with the honky-tonk heroes Two Dollar Pistols, for Traveling Alone. She again wears a leather jacket on the cover, but that earlier affectation for the masses has vanished. Instead, Merritt leans against the wall of a simple little restaurant, slouched in her seat with her right hand buried deep in her brushed-copper hair. Caught somewhere between insouciance and confidence, she stares into the distance, halfway through the beer that sits on the table. The pose seems almost candid and entirely vulnerable, the look of someone who has had to let something go.

That feeling defines Traveling Alone, the most exposed, open and ultimately best of Merritt’s five records to date. In the past, Merritt’s output, however likable, has been pocked by a sense of naiveté, an innocence that painted her into overly pastel corners. Though Traveling Alone is certainly a tender album, where Merritt “feel[s] like honey filled on hope” and extols “a stretch of green grace made to make love,” it also finds the graceful Southern singer hardened by the world’s realities. “Down South, baby, in the heat, I was raised up right, I was raised so sweet,” she sings during the opening title track, confirming her belle-like origins. But the trot of her acoustic guitar suddenly sounds a tad more brittle. “Sweetness ain’t gonna get you home. You’re bound to get a taste of traveling alone.” She’s heading out, getting older and stronger; in this moment of tenacity, Merritt has rarely been so immediate and honest.

She never sounds as tough or defiant as she does at the start, but she reverts time and again to an interrogative relationship with love, life and expectations throughout Traveling Alone. Recorded in Brooklyn with the likes of guitar wild-wire Marc Ribot, Calexico drummer John Convertino, producer Tucker Martine and longtime bassist Jay Brown, the record pushes its writer from the bounds of her familiar band. (Zeke Hutchins, Merritt’s drummer and husband, does not appear on the record.) More spare than past efforts, it conveys intimacy and urgency that suit the songs.

During “Drifting Apart,” a text-painting duet with the warbling Andrew Bird, Merritt observes a relationship that’s evolving only because its principals are becoming different peoplethey are tectonic plates, sliding slowly and separately. The quietly scandalous piano shuffle “Small Talk Relations” finds her seeking substance in a life of habits and the humdrum. “The secret current underneath,” she sings, smoldering alongside strings in the distance, “cannot be heard above the racket.” Elsewhere, she shirks responsibility, seeks reinvention and summons romance, relating an album that reads like a series of refined diary ruminations inspired by pervasive loneliness and a hard-won resilience against it. Traveling Alone is, at turns, sexy and mournful, caustic and playful; more than ever, Merritt conveys a true-to-life range of mood and whim.

Yep Roc serves as an interesting home for Traveling Alone. For the last 15 years, the label has split its efforts between perpetuating the legacies of established artists with major-label credentials and marquee recognition and pushing the sounds of younger bands without such bona fides to new audiences. At a glance, Merritt’s career fits the former mold; she’s been on a big imprint, released a live Austin City Limits set, played late-night television and found her name fit to print in The New York Times several times. But by and large, her career has been one of missed expectations or opportunities, the path of a talented singer-songwriter who has always just slipped shy of a star-making moment or record. Merritt, then, is a strange hybrid of those categoriesthe beloved veteran whose potential remains unfulfilled.

Traveling Alone might not change the size of her star, but two years after the most flaccid effort of her career, it is a brilliant shift in trajectory that affords a certain renewal of interest. “Wilt and wither with all you have left,” she sings on the gorgeous moan of “Spring.” “Beauty is defiance in the face of death.” Those quick lines tell the story of Traveling Alone, a record that finds Tift Merritt stepping to a smaller label to deliver the most balanced, lasting and poised performance of her career.

Label: Yep Roc Records

This article appeared in print with the headline “Big four.”