In Brief: One of the year’s best so far. In a perfect world, this would be a runaway hit.
I’m just gonna cut through the bull and say this in plain English. Josh Ritter is an amazing songwriter. He’s the kind of guy who might seem like a folksy everyman at first glance, fusing indie rock with Americana in ways that are bound to get the attention of critics who like intelligent music that isn’t too slickly produced, that leaves room for a little roughness around the edges. The thing is, I often don’t click with those kinds of artists despite the fact that I respect the honest approach they take to making music. I generally like a little bit of innovation or a little bit of layering even if it means a bit of studio tinkering that will mess with the purists. But Josh Ritter seems to know how to strike the balance between those kinds of grand productions and the simple, heart-on-sleeve folk songs that can captivate an audience at an open mic, coffeehouse sort of gig even if they’ve never heard the guy before. I’ve come to realize that, large-scale or small-scale, this guy has a way with words. And a well-written song tends to override most concerns that I might have about the sound or texture of a song being either too frailly or too plain. Josh Ritter’s got well-written songs up the wazoo – so much so that I’m tempted to feel like when he’s not telling some sort of highly inventive story with his music, he’s holding out on me.
The thing about folk and Americana is that these genres tend to push lyrics front and center. You can be quite skilled at your instrument of choice (usually the acoustic guitar, maybe the piano, but pick up something electric and you threaten to shift the focus back to the instrument), and you can have a great voice, but above and beyond those things (and often even in spite of not having those things), words tend to be the weapon of choice for an artist worth their salt in this tradition. You expect the guy to tell you a story, one that you couldn’t have invented yourself or predicted the conclusion to. It might be acceptable in this genre to croon a few love songs or muse about the human condition as nearly all songwriters do, but the best songwriters will broaden their palettes and come up with little vignettes that address these subjects through the eyes of unexpected characters, or from unexpected viewpoints. Josh Ritter, a man who seems to love history almost as much as he loves legends that may have never historically taken place (look no further than the title of 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter for proof of this) frequently spins these sorts of yarns that leave me in awe, thinking “Only a genius mind would think up that story and tell it from that point of view.” And his latest album, entitled So Runs the World Away, has a number of doozies on it, running the gamut from a woman falling in love with an archaeological discovery, to an old-school country murder ballad, to an epic tale of an explorer lost far out in a frigid sea. In between these larger-than-life moments are musings on travel (ships come up often, and there’s a song about trains, I think), a couple of percussion-heavy breakup songs just to rattle your nerves, and every now and then, he’ll go the simple, acoustic, stream-of-consciousness route. Those moments where Josh seems to pull back can seem almost unfair by comparison – that’s where the “holding out” part comes in and the record lags ever so slightly for it. But he covers so much ground here that it’s really difficult to complain.
While Josh had already proven his songwriting prowess to me on Historical Conquests, and that record was all over the map genre-wise, I’m actually quite amazed at how So Runs the World Away seems to expand upon its scope. Instrumental variety can make the big difference between a monotonous record that might cause you to miss the high-caliber songwriting, and a colorful record that accentuates it. And it’s a thrill to hear Josh attack some of these songs with glad abandon, laying on the thundering percussion, the horn fanfares, or the Sufjan Stevens-y bells and whistles when they’re called for, but also writing sturdy songs that would hold up well if just stripped to a single instrument and voice. What could be a nuisance in the hands of a less skilled artist whose producer is merely trying to distract you from bad songwriting, instead adds to the experience. Despite this record’s reach, it never feels overindulgent, only briefly disappointing in its middle third when it seems to be recycling an idea or two that played out better on his last record. That’s a minor criticism, though – So Runs the World Away is one of the year’s best, and if you have an ear for clever song lyrics like I do, you’re definitely gonna want to pick this one up.
This shimmery prelude is really a snippet from another song later in the album – it might be here to tell you that this later song is thematically important. After the third or fourth listen, you’ll probably realize where it came from.
2. Change of Time
The folksy fingerpicking draws me in immediately here – Ritter has proven himself to be great with little other than a repeating chord progression and a thoughtful narrative, so I’m already convinced he’s off to a great start when he begins to describe a dream in which he was left adrift at sea, watching ships sinking all around him. It gives eerie meaning to the stately ship pictured on the album’s cover, as if this were a Titanic on its maiden voyage, unaware of the iceberg it’s about to hit. There’s a hint that this will unfold into something bigger as the pounding of drums begins to skirt the edges of the song, and by the time the second chorus rolls around, they’re a smashing, driving force, giving the song an epic sound. Josh’s description of “Battered hulls and broken hardships, Leviathan and lonely” would be epic enough even if the song remained acoustic and intimate, though, so this is a win/win situation. I figure these lost ships are probably a metaphor for fellow musicians who have succumbed to the ravages of time, which of course is depicted as the cold, lonely ocean. They’ve sunk and he feels like one of the only survivors. It’s great stuff – we’re talking song of the year material here.
3. The Curse
Speaking of “stately”, the quiet piano waltz that drives this song would definitely qualify. It’s a bold move, sticking a gentle ballad this far up in the track listing, but it shows confidence that such a song is worth the attention even if it risks upsetting the flow a little. If you’ve heard “The Temptation of Adam”, which for me was the moment of peak brilliance on Historical Conquests, then you know Ritter doesn’t write just any ordinary old love songs – he explores the concept from rather fantastical points of view. Here, the star-crossed lovers are none other than an archaeologist and a mummy – and you’d expect such a song to quickly veer into “sick joke” territory, but you’d be sorely underestimating Ritter’s songwriting skills. The idea is played out with fondness, even with sensitivity, from the moment of her first laying eyes on this immortal being and his heart starting to beat again, through an increasingly weird series of events in which she becomes famous due to her discovery while he learns about her modern language and culture in return. It’s a strange, but profoundly touching courtship, one in which the mortal woman continually asks the immortal man if he’s cursed, to which he replies, “I think that I’m cured.” I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice to say it’s a tear-jerker, especially if you watch the music video, in which the story is brought to life by puppets. And my God, that trumpet solo! It seems modest at first glance, but hits like a ton of bricks once you’ve got the visual to go along with it. Two songs in and we’ve got another one that will surely rank among the year’s best – Ritter must owe the cosmos a huge favor for such a gift.
4. Southern Pacifica
A simpler lyric – but still an effective one – shows up in this weary traveling song, about taking a train to God knows where. It’s the tense chord sequence and the layering of guitars and colorful keyboards that really make this track sparkle – I can easily picture a train slowly chugging up a hill and then cresting it to find a gorgeous view of some faraway canyon. Escapism is a favorite topic in so many musical genres, to the point where your typical “Let’s get away from it all song” can be a bit of a cliche, but in the hands of a really good songwriter, you hear phrases like “Climb through the timbers, and I’ll breathe the dust of cosmos and wild rose bud”, and you can’t help but think, “Wherever he’s headed, I’d sure love to go there too.”
5. Rattling Locks
Ritter seems to have a few “mean” moments on each album, where the rhythms get more primal and he emphasizes the more coarse, brooding side of his voice just for the chilling effect of it. This one’s a prime example, with a rhythm comprised of a staccato guitar lick and quite a bit of banging on stuff, and yet it’s somehow slow, creepy, and measured despite the aggressive rhythm. Singing along is almost impossible here due to the way that Ritter almost seems to freestyle it – I’m sure he had written down whatever he was going to sing before hitting “record” here, but he intentionally plays it loose with the rhythm of his words, drawing out a line here and then rushing another one there, just for the sake of the swagger. What starts as a simple lament about being locked out of his girlfriend’s place and trying to jimmy the lock to get back in gets weirder as it going, eventually leading Ritter to the conclusion that “Rather than rattling your locks, I’d rather spend the night in hell.” Yee-OWCH. The female background vocal repeating “Black hole, black hole” just makes it that much more bitter.
6. Folk Bloodbath
I guess the “murder ballad” is one of those staples of folk and/or country music, though I can’t say it’s one that I’ve ever been big on. I guess it takes a certain fascination with the morbid to appreciate that kind of song, but even on such an unsavory subject, Josh chooses his words well. He’s using stock characters from other folk songs, kind of bringing them together in a mish-mash of stories to illustrate the unfortunate and seemingly arbitrary nature of death – a man comes home to find that his wife’s passed away, only to get shot in the back of the head while preparing for her funeral. About each person who dies, the song’s refrain simply says, “The angels laid him away”, which sounds like a nice religious take on the subject, until Ritter ponders the unfortunate, abrupt demises of these people (including the murderer) and muses, “I’m looking over rooftops and I’m hoping it ain’t true/That the same God looks out for them looks out for me and you.” Man, that’s rough. A brief bust of energy in the form of a horn solo between the last few verses does help to pick things up a bit, though.
I’m not quite sure why I have a tough time connecting with this song. Its lyrics are dense enough to warrant getting lost in, and I like the up-tempo guitar picking. Maybe it just isn’t as grand of a production as the songs that came before it, feeling more like a stream of consciousness that doesn’t strike with quite the same amount of weight as the songs that say more directly what they’re about. Those who love to dissect poetry will have a great time with stanzas such as the following: “The meteoric warp and wend/Counterbalancing the sparks, ever ascending/The arrow shoots forward, though it moves through repetition/The heartbeat of a lark or a lark in my heartbeat.” I find it intriguing, but wish a little more had been done with it production-wise. I can hear some strings and other background sounds now that I listen more carefully, but still the song seems to drift on by without making quite the impact that it should.
This is perhaps the poppiest tune on the record, with a harmonic rhythm picked out on the electric guitar that repeats throughout the background, and the melody feeling much warmer, picking up steam and repeating its earnest refrain “I need light in my lantern, light in my lantern tonight” with the apparent hope of it becoming a sing-along. This reminds me very much of “Empty Hearts”, which was one of my favorite tracks on Historical Conquests despite its repetitive nature. It was a shot of optimism at exactly the point where it was needed most, and this song mines similar territory, but I feel like it’s retreading ground that Ritter’s covered more effectively elsewhere. There’s the occasional line that really grabs me – I’m half-tempted to quote “Tell me what’s the point of light that you have to strike a match to find?” in an Email signature or something. But overall, this one falls slightly short of expectations, and also feels like it’s out of place in the album’s dead center, especially since the abrupt ending of that repeating guitar melody does nothing to lead into the following song – not fading it out seems like a bit of a production goof.
9. The Remnant
And now we’re back to pounding, rhythmic, angry Josh. This is the guy I got to know on tracks like “Rumors” and “Real Long Distance” from the previous album. The drums banging evenly, in time with the piano, conspire to make you feel like this song is stalking you. This is a deceptive one, because I tend to think of it as feeding a very basic instinct to express aggression, and yet when I look over the lyrics, there’s quite a bit here to dig into. Ritter has a funny habit of doing that – making me look deeper into the moments on the album that I didn’t appreciate as much at first. What starts as a jerky, stuttering motion becomes an unstoppable force by song’s end, completely with slippery guitar noise and some other eerie background sounds. A single quote doesn’t do this creepy track justice, but when Ritter starts to repeat “Nothing that is hidden will be revealed” toward the end, I start to think, “Hmmm, maybe he’s ranting about the final season of LOST.”
10. See How Man Was Made
And now we completely switch moods again – first we went from optimistic to angry, and now we’re going from angry to lonely. This song’s starkness surprised me at first, with Josh’s voice echoing in the empty space only populated by a finger-picked, triple-time rhythm and stray bits of keyboards. It slowly proves itself to be an interesting sonic collage, though, as Josh’s pleading “Man wasn’t made to live alone!” rings out against a background of horns and vibraphone and this strikingly familiar melody in the shimmery white noise behind it all… hey, wait a minute, where have I heard that before?
11. Another New World
So really, we’re going to follow up one spacious, quiet ballad with another one? And this one’s seven and a half minutes long? Such an indulgence would bring most albums to a screeching halt, but there’s such a fascinating story to be told here that “stark and slow” is really the only way to play it, and this actually makes the previous track a sort of thematic prelude which adds a little extra depth to this one. The story here is that of a sailor who sets out on his prized ship, the Annabel Lee, to seek out a new world amidst the ice caps of the arctic ocean. This increasingly lonely journey is painted so beautifully by the icy repetition of the same brooding chords, the keyboards and horns floating about, and the noticeable lack of any sort of percussion. As the weather gets colder, the crew begins to thin out, and the explorer becomes more desperate, the story gets more riveting. Most brilliantly, the captain personifies his ship as a woman, one whom he loves dearly and trusts to lead him through to that glorious new world, which makes his eventual decision to abandon ship after being stranded in the ice for God knows how long just that much more poignant. You can imagine a grizzled old sailor, sitting in the corner of a bar somewhere, nursing a beer and recounting his sad story to anyone with the time to sit down and listen. The last few minutes are a beautiful eulogy to the fallen ship, letting the horns and glockenspiel take over for a climax that would make Sufjan Stevens drool. It’s such a brilliant finale that it almost feels like it should have been the end of the album – though I guess that would have been a bit of a downer. Still, I don’t think Ritter himself knew exactly how to follow this show-stopping act.
No, this isn’t electronic dance music. Wrong Orbital. Though after the loneliness of the last few tracks, some listeners might feel a sense of relief, even elation, as the drums come confidently marching back in for a much happier song about two people who are destined to be together. Once again, it’s subject matter that would be corny in most songwriters’ hands, but as Josh describes pairings of animals and elements of nature that were made to chase and circle around one each other, including the moons and planets themselves, he gets a lot of mileage out of the metaphor. It’s a good song that suffers a bit from its placement – I might have swapped this one for “Lantern” in the track order, or even put the two songs together due to the way they compliment each other. But a song’s almost asking not to get as much attention when it’s placed after a jaw-dropper such as “Another New World”.
13. Long Shadows
It feels almost negligent to end this album on something so simple as a short, light-hearted acoustic song that skips along for a mere two and a half minutes proclaiming “I’m not afraid of the dark”. I know, it’s weird that I’m downplaying an upbeat ending in favor of a dark one, but once again, it seems like it would make sense to keep the light-themed songs together – it feels like this one, “Orbital”, and “Lantern” could have come from another album with a very different personality. Even in the most incidental moments on the album, Ritter’s got some good lyrical nuggets, and this one’s no exception, using language descriptive enough for a novel to fit more into such a short song than you’d probably expect. I’d probably appreciate this one more somewhere else – there’s too much pressure on it by placing it at the end of an album with so many heavy-hitters on it.
Man, there’s so much goodness buried in the lyric sheet for this album that I’ve come to appreciate it much more in the process of analyzing it more deeply for the sake of a review than I already did when just listening to it casually. I have to appreciate the musical diversity stacked on top of that even if not every song’s my “style”. Ritter’s really good at picking the genre to fit the song without sounding like he’s being a chameleon just for his own sake – it simply adds new tools to his arsenal, making sure that listeners are unlikely to get bored with his sound. I figure I can probably recommend his music to a wide variety of people for all of these reasons.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Change of Time $2
The Curse $2
Southern Pacifica $1.50
Rattling Locks $1
Folk Bloodbath $1
The Remnant $1
See How Man Was Made $1
Another New World $2
Long Shadows $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.