Artist: Josh Ritter
Album: Sermon on the Rocks
In Brief: A much more diverse, playful, foreboding, swaggery, fantastical, pretty much everything (except boring and mopey!) album than The Beast in Its Tracks. I’m unsure how much of this record is fact and how much is fiction, and since Ritter is so good at the fiction, that’s just the way I like it.
I’ve been following Josh Ritter for about half of his career now, ever since The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter first came to my attention back in 2008. That makes four albums out of a discography of eight that I’ve taken the time to listen to, and I now own and enjoy three of those. I wouldn’t have considered him to be a potential top-tier favorite when I first heard his music; something about his raggedy brand of folk/rock struck me as amusing, and I found the sonic diversity went beyond what I’d expect from an artist in the singer/songwriter vein, but the irreverent tone of it occasionally kept me at a distance. By the time So Runs the World Away rolled around in 2010, I had shed those complaints and I was ready to put Ritter in my pantheon of favorite songwriters. So many of the tracks on that record were pure genius. It was diverse, perhaps even uneven, but the man sure could spin a good yarn, and I still tear up a little bit at the unorthodox but emotionally charged climaxes of “The Curse” and “Another New World”. 2013’s The Beast in Its Tracks, however, really soured me on Ritter, as he stripped back a lot of the diverse instrumentation and fantastical subject matter to make a more somber and grounded record about the dissolution of his marriage. I suppose a songwriter just needs to get one of those records out of his system at some point, because he’s been through some serious stuff and needs to vent about it. it wasn’t a particularly nasty sendoff to his ex-wife – heck, a lot of the songs were downright optimistic, considering. But it was still a chore to get through, and I missed the imaginative yarns that he would spin on stories that were too fantastical to possibly take place in the real world. I decided that Ritter was just better when he wasn’t writing about himself, and I figured this would just be a hiccup in an otherwise fine discography.
Ritter’s latest disc, Sermon on the Rocks, has definitely brought me back into the fold. It’s got a lot of tracks that unironically embrace country music, bringing some twangier sounds into the ramshackle folk/rock sound he’s cultivated over the years, and it works perfectly for a record that spends a lot of its time taking aim at the holier-than-thou facade much of “middle America” seems to hide behind. Remember how I said his irreverence kept me at a distance a few years ago? Here, I think it’s vital. I’d say that I’ve changed more than Ritter has on this particular subject, because intentionally subverted references to the Christian faith and to Scripture that would have made me squirm a few years ago now amuse me quite a bit. Perhaps it just takes a little experience to know the difference between an actual, life-changing faith and just a snotty country club, butt he bottom line is that, for all of his swagger and bravado in so many of these songs, Ritter doesn’t seem to be knocking religion itself. He’s just sort of pulling at the thread of the logical inconsistencies that can turn up when the line between faith and superstition gets muddled, and you start seeing the devil everywhere because you’re afraid to leave your isolated little church bubble. This stuff isn’t what every single song on the record was about, but it clearly influenced enough of it to make an alcohol-soaked pun on “Sermon on the Mount” a fitting album title. I’m not a drinker, personally, but if I was, I’d love to have Ritter as a drinking buddy, because he’d probably be the kind of guy who only gets more thought-provoking once he’s a few beers deep. (I’d probably just start making dumb jokes where the punchlines didn’t even make any sense, and then pass out. But that’s neither here nor there.)
If there’s a downside to Sermon, it’s that Ritter has a bad habit of second-guessing the simple strength of a few of his songs, and mucking with their overall pace or structure in ways that can be off-putting when you’re not used to it. Three of its tracks – most notably the very first two songs on the album – suffer from this sort of self-conscious meddling, and they all have strong enough grooves and melodies that you have to wonder why he couldn’t just leave well enough alone. In other places, when a song establishes a solid musical identity, it tends to stay put, and there are a few of them that contain wonderful sonic surprises, so I wouldn’t say that it’s an entirely bad thing for Ritter to tinker a bit in the studio. In my book, it’s better to try some different things and have a few of them fail than it is to take the “three chords and the truth” approach and have it all sound the same. “Ten chords and some clever bullsh*t” is definitely more my speed. (None of his songs actually seem to have that many chords, but you get my point.) Just be aware that it’s a bit of a rough ride the first time through.
1. Birds of the Meadow
Josh emerges from the wilderness on this track like a modern-day John the Baptist (minus the good news), with his voice raggedy and low, sounding a bit out of character at first. Over a slinky, sorta-rock and sorta-R&B groove, he warns us that “fire is coming”, though what exactly this has to do with the birds of the meadow, I can’t quite articulate. He’s the dark equivalent of a prophet here, bringing an unsettling sense of discord and reveling in the debauchery, rather than preaching repentance or anything like that. As he puts it so creepily and yet so aptly: “You wanted a messenger and I be he/Your heebie-jeebie man in ecstasy/But my eyes are blazing and my mantle dark/You better hark.” I’m totally on board with the eerieness of the whole thing, except for a weak spot in the middle of the song where it sounds like it’s starting to disintegrate into a different song that it was recorded over, with Ritter detachedly humming some long-forgotten melody and the rhythm deliberately clashing with that of the main song. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to this, considering how the guitars and drums suddenly dive back in for another minute or so of jamming as if nothing unusual had happened.
2. Young Moses
You can really hear the country influence on this one as the drums come rolling in, the piano starts rambling along like something out of a bar in some podunk town, and the steel guitar – oh my God, that steel guitar riff is just awesome. I want to call this “honky-tonk” but I don’t know if my terminology is accurate. Important thing is, it’s fun. Ritter, as he does on several of his best songs, walks a fine line between wordiness and catchiness, making sure to sell the main hook of the song for all it’s worth but also packing a lot of story into it. He’s transplanting bits and pieces of the story of Moses into a modern-day, Midwestern American setting, and I’ll admit that the wordplay is clever enough that I’m not sure I’m picking up on all of the skewed Biblical allusions and possible double entendres present here. I love everything I’m hearing until once again, Ritter makes the mistake of interrupting something great alrady in progress for something not so great – the song quite suddenly slides into a down-tempo bridge between its first chorus and second verse. I don’t mind that he’s toying with our expectations of traditional song structure, but it doesn’t seem to fit, and it has the unfortunate side effect of killing the impact when, later in the song, it seems to come to a traditional ending and then the band jumps back in to take it for a victory lap. Normally I love that sort of thing, but here I’m like “Oh no, is he gonna slow it down again?” A little less second-guessing would have made this a more cohesive tune.
3. Henrietta, Indiana
This chillingly sad song about a industrial town fallen on hard times really hits home. It seems like a quietly haunting acoustic ballad at first, and it is that for the most part, but then there’s a somewhat bluesy electric guitar part laid on rather thick at times, and it really sells the drama and urgency of the song. Ritter plays the son of a factory worker and the brother of a backslidden preacher, both of whom turn to a life of crime after getting laid off from their jobs. For the most part he’s telling the song about a man who “had the devil in his eye” in the third person, but at some point a transformation happens, and due to a few bad decisions and a whole lot of alcohol, he slowly transforms into the very thing he hates. I love Ritter’s wordplay here, how the lyric turns a corner when the man hears the news of his fugitive father: “They thought I was crying, it was something in my eye.” Taken at face value, it’s just a man making excuses for why he looks emotional but really isn’t, but then you look back at the last few verses and remember that the thing in his eye is the devil. The song implies the crime spree that follows without explicitly stating it as in a song like “Folk Bloodbath”; it leaves the story more open-ended but I like that the truly terrifying implications of it are left to the listener’s imagination.
4. Getting Ready to Get Down
This fast-paced mouthful of a track seems tailor-made for line dancing (and, true to form, the music video for it is nothing but that). It’s at once hilarious, though-provoking, and a bit discomforting, since this is where Ritter takes a few potshots at the conservative religious subculture of parts of America where they frown on dancing and think the most efficient way to keep a young woman from discovering that she’s a sexual being is to ship her off to some Bible school in an isolated part of the Midwest. Ritter’s tongue-twisting rhymes are spot-on here as he describes how this woman only comes back armed with more knowledge about the “Infidels, Jezebels, Salomes and Delilahs” of the Bible and her fair share of questions about whether the squeaky-clean facade she was presented with at church every Sunday even really reflects what the Bible teaches. The central hook of the song, of course, has a double meaning, and only a guy like Ritter has the swagger to pull off a hook like “I’m getting ready to get down” with enough of a wink and a nudge to make me get it without feeling icky for getting it. Even if the “getting down”, is literally just dancing, folks are being taught that “Jesus hates your high school dances”, so even reading it innocently, you just can’t win with these folks. What could have been an uninformed rant against religion in general is instead a devastatingly informed bit of social commentary that’s way more fun than you’d expect it to be, which just adds to my amusement, since it’s taunting people who seem to want to make the very concept of fun illegal. The Jesus talked about in these churches and the Jesus in the Bible don’t seem to line up, and this is a very smart way of pointing that out.
5. Seeing Me ‘Round
It wouldn’t be a Josh Ritter record without a murder ballad, now would it? While “Henrietta, Indiana” alluded to a man becoming a killer, here a killer is outright confronted, and in an interesting twist, it’s the person he killed who is confronting him. Instrumentally, there’s something about the sparse, yet steady percussion and the rich acoustics of this track (it sounds like a Spanish guitar, giving it that extra dash of tragic romance) that really pulls me in as Ritter recounts all the cruel acts of kidnapping and torture and eventually dumping the body and promises, “You’ll be seeing me ’round”, as if saying that the ghost will haunt the killer for all eternity. Mood-wise, they really nailed this one, using guitar distortion and a talkbox to great effect when the song very suddenly gets loud and menacing during its bridge/solo section. I get the good kind of chills listening to this one, and since dead men in real life tell no tales, a song like this is Exhibit A for why I don’t want Ritter to keep his subject matter purely factual.
6. Where the Night Goes
I suppose we needed something a little more upbeat at this point – the last few songs have been quite brooding and cynical, though I do love them for that. A bit more jaunty piano and some pretty good electric guitar licks lead the way in a much simpler song about hitting the road with no particular destination and seeing where the night takes you. This one’s open-ended enough to be the soundtrack for a variety of late-evening, hell-raising adventures. Ritter has a gift for making it specific and yet malleable, because even when going for simple escapism, he’s chruning out these amusingly weird turns of phrase like “The sheriff of Hell couldn’t pull you over”. Instrumentally, it doesn’t grab me as much as the past few songs, but its combination of whimsical and cavalier attitudes still hits the spot for me.
Ritter goes full-on Paul Simon here for an upbeat little folk song with abundant guitar strumming and bongo-playing, about the simple pleasures of a favorite place in the good-old American countryside that, in the songwriter’s mind, can hold its own with the scenic wonders of the world. Maybe Ritter realized he didn’t want the entire record to be down on the “country folk” and the more rural places that they live, so I see the previous track and this one as a celebration of those places, and here in particular he seems to deride the “city folk” who think there’s nothing of value out there and he’ll only be wasting his time. This is a good sing-along track that oughta go over really well in his live shows.
Bringing a trilogy of fondly nostalgic songs about small town life to a close is this five-minute anthem about coming home and rekindling the kind of old flames you used to hang out with at Make-Out Point. Ritter clearly designed this one with an epic scope in mind, though in my mind it doesn’t quite get there. Bless him for trying, though – the slow piano intro is a sentimental attention-getter, and I love the up-tempo, train-softly-rambling-down-the-tracks sort of rhythm it’s got going, but once again, he may have made the mistake of futzing with the song structure a little too much. I’m not sure we needed a slow intro, fast verse and chorus, slow bridge, and then back around to the upbeat stuff again. It makes a song about something simple feel a little bit too ornate for its own good. This isn’t as distracting as it was when Ritter made left turns that interrupted enjoyable grooves early in the album, though. What’s more distracting is this squishy, electronic sort of sound that keeps repeating over and over during the main hook of the song. It just plain doesn’t fit, and it’s one of those moments where I had to wonder what the heck he was thinking by introducing that into an otherwise organic song that really had all the ingredients it needed. I’m totally on board with the reminiscing about one’s hometown and the implied optimistic notion that maybe you can go home again and relive some of your old glory days. Ritter made the right call with the music video on this one – which is nothing but a bunch of crowdsourced still images of various places his listeners call home. It’s one of those songs where doing something simple and understated just made sense, and I’m glad he grasped that concept when making the video, even if the audio doesn’t totally reflect it.
9. The Stone
This downbeat song explores the minus side of tearing up your roots and leaving the place you’ve called home for so long. It’s got a slow, vaguely bluesy feel to it, which is a bit distracting because there’s this part of the melody when he sings “That the night comes down” where it reminds me of the Switchfoot song “The Blues” (not an actual blues song, but still), specifically the end part where Jon Foreman sings “When the world caves in”. I doubt very many people have actually heard both songs, so this is probably just a bizarre coincidence. It’s not really a big deal, anyway, as I’m much more distracted by this song’s kind of bitter tone and the nagging sense that it feels like a bit of a leftover track from Beast. I hate to keep harping on my ambivalence toward that record, but as he sings, “Lying wide awake in a different house/With different arms around you now”, I can’t help but feel like he’s still dwelling on his ex. It could well be about anyone, so if he’d never made that other album, this wouldn’t really bother me, but it still wouldn’t be that interesting of a song, coming from a writer of Ritter’s caliber.
10. A Big Enough Sky
Optimism attempts a comeback here, on a track that’s about dreaming big, being willing to give your whole heart to someone, and being totally unashamed of it. I can get behind that. Musically or lyrically it’s not as intricately details as Ritter’s best work, but it’s a fun little pop/rock track that gives the guitar, percussion, and bass plenty to do. I enjoy listening to it even though I don’t usually remember a whole lot about it after the record is over. Part of that might be because it’s chorus mentions prairie fires and lightning – look at the title of the next track and you’ll see why I tend to get confused about which lyrics belong to which song.
11. Lighthouse Fire
There are always at least one or two songs on Josh Ritter albums that feel more like repeated mantras than attempts at telling a fully fleshed-out story. Some of them do a great job of setting the mood and giving us a solid hook and a decent lyrical payoff despite that – “Rattling Locks” and “Empty Hearts” were good examples of that. Here the mantra is “My love is a lighthouse fire”, and thematically the song sort of continues on that notion of nothing being too big for two dreamers in love to accomplish. It’s amazing how Ritter can pull this off without sounding cheesy. His opening line is “Gonna build you a cathedral out of nothing but the rafters ‘tween the stars.” It’s freakin’ ridiculous, but once again, he’s got the swagger to make it work. The staccato electric guitars and steady percussion certainly help – it’s one of the catchiest tracks on the album, and I like how Ritter tends to throw in one of these upbeat tunes at the eleventh hour on most of his albums, like a conscious attempt to keep things from getting too sleepy in the back half. (I mean shoot, even that one album I keep bagging on had “In Your Arms Awhile” in this slot.)
12. My Man on a Horse (Is Here)
“Sleepy” would probably be a fair description of the closing track. that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – I sort of like the lazy, loping, old-school-country nature of it, with its chorus of “Hidey-hidey-hidey-hey”. He’s deconstructing the genre a bit, what with the distorted electric guitar and the weird chord progression where a few of the notes seem out of place and yet they’re right there on the scale between the notes you expect the guitar to hit. This one gives me the mental picture of a cowboy riding off into the sunset, though it’s in defeat rather than victory. I have no idea who “my man on a horse” is or why his arrival means rescue from the nightmares Ritter describes having in the song, so unlike a lot of his lyrics, I feel like this one keeps me at a distance. There’s some halfway decent wordplay here, but altogether, it’s not one of his better closing tracks
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Birds of the Meadow $1
Young Moses $1.25
Henrietta, Indiana $1.50
Getting Ready to Get Down $2
Seeing Me ‘Round $1.75
Where the Night Goes $1
The Stone $.25
A Big Enough Sky $1
Lighthouse Fire $1.50
My Man on a Horse (Is Here) $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: