Artist: Josh Ritter
In Brief: This one’s got some ramshackle romps, some haunting ballads that plumb the depths of the soul, and some laid-back country numbers. Yep, it’s a Josh Ritter album, alright – though I wouldn’t say it’s a career landmark this time around.
Josh Ritter seems to be on a roll. His late 2015 release, Sermon on the Rocks, still feels somewhat fresh and new in my mind. I had already declared him to be one of my favorite songwriters after being wowed by several standout tracks on 2010’s So Runs the World Away, but Sermon was an interesting record that found Ritter playing with more prominent country influences, while offering a slight bit of backhanded commentary on the dark side of life in the rural Bible belt, and exploring more optimistic themes of what it meant to have a place to call home. It felt like a carefully crafted record that took a lot of thought to put together, so I assumed there would be at least another three-year gap before he came up with another LP. Much to my surprise, Gathering was announced about midway through the year, dropping in September of 2017. And it’s a record that has a few echoes of the things I enjoyed about both of the past Ritter albums I’ve mentioned, as well as some of his older work. It’s pretty much immediately recognizable as having a voice that is uniquely his, and yet it feels like it branches out in some subtle new directions as well.
If there’s a flaw to Ritter’s approach on Gathering, it would seem to be that anything goes and there isn’t as obvious of a theme here. I suppose you could say something similar about So Runs the World Away, which had a few folksy rockers and long, languid ballads that might share some creative DNA with a few of the songs on this project. I suppose I prefer a collage of different song ideas, some based more on showcasing the lyrics and some more of an abstract exercise intended to show off an interesting melodic or rhythmic idea, considering how dry and tedious Ritter’s work felt when he tried to stick with a singular, stripped-down mood for an entire record on 2013’s The Beast in Its Tracks. So when I say that Gathering might not be remembered as one of Ritter’s all-time best records, that’s only because the sum of the parts isn’t as strong as it is on So Runs the World Away or 2007’s Historical Conquests, and there might be a few moments where tracks that would stand out individually suffer a little bit simply because they’re adjacent to like-minded compositions. Do I want Ritter to be consistent or to be a veritable roulette wheel of song styles where I’m never quite sure what I might get? I lean towards the latter, and Gathering certainly has its share of intriguing surprises to offer.
While I haven’t detected a singular theme to Gathering, a lot of its songs seem to explore the concepts of loneliness and companionship, and how a man can have the latter but still feel the former. On some of the songs, he still appears to be reeling from an old breakup, and on others he relishes new love, but perhaps the most interesting tracks are the ones where he explores who he is in the dark, when no one’s looking and there’s no facade for him to maintain. Since Ritter is such a gifted storyteller, I’m often unsure of whether a song is truly about him or just a character he invented. The bulk of The Beast in Its Tracks was quite obviously about his divorce, but I wouldn’t assume that the ill-fated sailor from “Another New World” or the criminal family from “Henrietta, Indiana” were inspired by his personal experiences. At times the line between fact and fiction is a bit blurrier, perhaps intentionally, but what I love about Ritter is how he delivers each set of lyrics with a sense of authenticity, making it believable that he’s either been through what he’s seeing about or else he’s a damn good actor. Nearly every song on this album has a worthwhile story to tell or analogy to draw, and though at times the music comes up a little dry for me here, it’s worth noting that on the more “fun” songs where he puts rhythms and riffs front and center and the lyrics are more playful, that they’re still quite engaging. Even when Ritter’s being a bit self-consciously goofy, his lyrics are never throwaways. So I feel confident as a I listen to this that even the songs I don’t connect with as much still have a lot of depth to plumb in terms of what he intends to communicate. I listen to a lot of other music these days where I feel like the performance carries a song more so than the lyrics do, so it’s nice to have a hard-working songwriter like Josh Ritter around to help serve as an antidote.
1. Shaker Love Song (Leah)
The opening track is actually just a short interlude, a simple vocal melody with the syllable “Lo” rising and falling, and the name “Leah” being sung in the background. I have no idea why this is here or who it might have been written for, but there’s a simple beauty to it, in a way that I can only assume the religious community it’s named for would appreciate.
This song pretty much immediately got added to the short list of songs I’d use as exhibit A if asked to demonstrate why Josh Ritter was one of my favorite songwriters. It’s insightful and it’s also downright fun. Ritter’s usual folk/rock style gets gussied up a bit here with a horn section as he paints a picture of himself as a guy who never cries and who always looks confident, but secretly prays for the rain to fall to mask the pain he’s been told all his life that it isn’t socially acceptable to let show. On the inside, he’s pretty torn up over a girl leaving him and he’s not at all seaworthy, but the facade looks sturdy enough, and that’s what he’s going to present to any potential love interest crossing his path in the future. I don’t know if Ritter just has a fascination with ships – the cover of So Runs the World Away had an image of one, and a few of its songs prominently mentioned them – but it’s a winning metaphor that instantly gets the point across while allowing him to have tons of fun with odd rhymes and interesting analogies where rain and bodies of water are concerned. What’s perhaps most impressive here are how the lyrics just keep on coming – two verses and a chorus aren’t enough to contain all of his thoughts, so the lead-up to the second chorus, as well as that chorus itself, get extended out beyond their familiar refrains so that the sweet rhymes can just keep rolling in: “Though he looks a little tired/One eye always pointed skyward/Waiting for a drop of rain/To fall and help to hide the pain/To fall and help to lift the boat/So he can think he’s still afloat/Pretending he ain’t sinking, no/Pretending he ain’t sinking over her.”
Befitting its run-together title which is a colloquial way of saying “Friend of Mine”, this song comes crashing in with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, piano chords banging away and everybody sounding like they’re in a hurry to run through the song as fast as they can because someone in the band needs to go to the bathroom or something. it’s amusingly strange, and it keeps the energy level high, sort of like if a punk band were forced to make do with the instruments found in a dusty saloon. Ritter’s in full-on “rambling mode” here – this is what I call his vocal delivery when it seems hell-bent on jamming in as many words as possible on each line and not worrying so much about the beauty of a melody or clarity of his phrasing. The first song of his I ever heard was “To the Dogs or Whoever”, where he employs this method quite prominently, and even though it seems strange and off-putting when you’re not used to it, it’s a tactic of his that I’ve developed a fondness for over the years. You can pretty easily get the gist of it – a former lover has pulled a bait-and-switch where she said they’d still be friends, but she’s not exactly eager to follow through on that sentiment, and now he’s confused and frustrated over the whole thing. Whether this is about his ex-wife or someone else he dated, or just a situation he made up out of the blue, I can’t say. But I’ve been there, done that, so I can sure as hell relate, even if it was a very long time ago.
4. Feels Like Lightning
When I first listened to Gathering, I said it wasn’t as prominently influenced by country music as Sermon on the Rocks, but I might have to rethink that assessment after listening more closely to songs like this one. Sure, it’s not as blatant as “Getting Ready to Get Down”, but the shuffling rhythm and especially the bass that bounces back and forth between two notes are pretty strong hallmarks of the genre. It’s less twangy, but it still has that “Southern traveling man” sort of feel to it. It’s still an upbeat tune, though the lighter touch on the guitars means it doesn’t land its hook as immediately as the last two tracks did. Ritter’s full of vivid imagery here as he describes an oncoming storm and he compares the sudden realization that he’s falling in love to being hit by lightning. I love the lyrics, but I wish the music had a bit more pizzazz to it, to really sell that idea of being hit by a bolt from the blue.
5. When Will I Be Changed
I’m sure this song started life as a slow, simple song of lament. Then things got Weir’d. No, that’s not a typo. Grateful Dead vocalist Bob Weir sings a duet with Josh here, and while I’m not gonna say his vocal style is really up my alley, it lends the song a “weary old soul” sort of vibe that fits the lyrics. The backing vocals and instrumentation give it just the slight hint of being an old spiritual, and the song certainly borrows its language from church music, asking if “power in the blood” and “the truth down in my bones” is enough to truly change a man. Ritter comes at this as more of a question than a statement of faith, wanting to know “When oh when, will I be changed, from the devil that I am.” So it’s sort of a prayer, but one spoken from the outside of the stained glass window, looking in. I really want to like this song more than I do, but the repetitive melody doesn’t change a whole lot and the pace of it is slow enough that six minutes of it gets a bit tedious. Especially on an album with some even longer songs to follow, it might be a bit excessive.
6. Train Go By
Another slow, pensive song follows – this time more of a gentle acoustic song with a soft but constant rhythm in the way that the guitar is finger-picked. I like the mellow sound of it, but as with the track before it, I keep waiting for it to change up midway through, and it never does. Here, Josh sings about the passage of time as though it were a train that had dropped him off in the middle of nowhere and now he’s waiting patiently for it to return. He seems to be unpacking what went wrong in a past relationship that led him to this point, and wanting to hop on that train, go back to the point where they started, and plan out a better journey for them. But the weary sadness in his voice tells us that any chance to do this is probably long gone. I like the quiet, autumnal mood of this song, but it doesn’t excite me all that much. As Josh Ritter songs about trains go, “Southern Pacifica” is more my speed.
This haunting song may well be the centerpiece of the entire album. I’m usually iffy about the results when Ritter applies his more rambling/conversational vocal style to a more rhythmic song that seems like it’s meant to rely on a bit of looped rhythm or melody. “Rattling Locks” on So Runs the World Away didn’t quite work for me for this reason. Here, the dark pattern of acoustic guitar chords, with a bit of upright bass and a repeat piano motif that is perhaps best described as “obsessively anxious” are meant to depict a bout with depression punctuated by panic attacks. He’s purposefully off-rhythm as he delivers them, almost as if he can’t sit still and he continually feels the need to rush to the next line of lyrics. It’s unsettling, and it’s meant to be. Though the song keeps returning to a simple, hushed refrain of “Dreams, they keep a-coming, but the dream done gone”, it has a whopping eighteen stanzas of lyrics to get through (which takes up three entire pages of the lyric booklet!) These verses tell a long and meandering story of a man trying, religion, drugs, and finally romance as a cure for his mental imbalance, sort of drifting through life with no stability and wrestling with a fair number of traumatic events and personal demos in the meantime. This song doesn’t allow the listener to relax and just let the lyrics to fade into the background – they’re constantly tugging at your shirtsleeves, begging you to pay attention, as if he were a not-all-there vagrant who hasn’t had anyone willing to sit down and talk to him in years. Somehow, six minutes of this doesn’t get old at all, because the story remains engaging and I do truly feel for this man’s plight. Whether Ritter himself went through depression or manic episodes like what he describes here, I can’t say, but at the very least he has to have known someone who went through it, because his depiction of the dead ends this person found himself in when looking for a cure are scarily accurate: “I went to the doctor who sent me to a doctor/Who send me to a doctor who sent me to a room/And that’s where I waited with the world ending around me/And the voices in my head jangling round in a tomb.” By the end of the song, he’s found solace in a companion who he knows can’t cure his disease, but he’s certain that without this person, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t still be there. It’s a profound testament to the power of simply having someone to let you know you’re not alone, which for an individual driven that close to the brink of calling it quits could literally mean the difference between life and death.
8. Myrna Loy
Wow, this album is getting really ballad-heavy at this point. “When Will I Be Changed” was six minutes long, “Dreams” clocked in at 6:20, and now we have this long, gentle piano ballad, which drags out to 7:30. Not that I have any problem with a song being long and taking its time to really establish a mood, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have placed these three songs so close together with another slower song amidst them. (Together with the interlude following this track, that’s a solid 25 minutes of wall-to-wall mellow material between the end of “Feels Like Lightning” and the next up-tempo song following it.) I feel like this song, which is apparently an ode to an actress from the early days of Hollywood who passed away in the 1990s, would be more likely to get the attention it deserved if it were at the end of the album or otherwise not clustered together with a lot of slower material. Nonetheless, it at least has some thematic connection to dreams, as Ritter takes on the role of a more peaceful, calming presence, perhaps sitting with this aging actress and reminiscing with her about her glory days when the stories she played out on the silver screen impacted viewers in a way that most modern movies don’t. The pictures he paints in most of this songs verses bring to mind the Wild West, during the days of the Gold Rush, which for all I know could have been the subject of some of her films. (I had honestly never heard of the actress before listening to this song. I had guessed “Myrna Loy” was the name of some Welsh town. Turns out the actress had some Welsh ancestry, so at least I got the language right.) It’s a beautiful tribute, but as with some of the previous slower songs, I find myself wishing things would change up in some way and become more dramatic rather than just looping through the same basic verse/chorus structure. I also don’t know how the chorus, which just repeats “In the darkness” fits into the rest of it, since it’s a bit of a morbid thought to return to in a song that otherwise expresses admiration. There’s probably more to discover here than what I’m picking up on. Honestly, due to its placement in the track listing by about three or four minutes into this thing, I’m ready to move on to the rest of the album already.
This slow horn fanfare feels like the kind of thing Joe Henry might build an entire song around. It’s about a minute and a half long, and it feels like it’s here to lay the most mellow and mournful section of the album to rest before diving back into the up-tempo material. Without it, the transition between songs might be incredibly jarring.
10. Cry Softly
You know you’re over someone when they try to come crawling back to you, and you’re strong enough to tell them to take a hike instead of falling for them all over again. That seems to be the premise of this song, which thankfully jacks the tempo back up and brings back a little more of the defiant country/rock flavor heard on Sermon on the Rocks. This one shows newfound confidence in the face of whatever breakup Ritter (or the character he’s been played) was dealing with in earlier songs. It’s also kinda mean, though considering what he’s been put through, not entirely unwarranted. He retells stories of promises she made him and then rapidly broke by running off with someone else, and recounts all the numerous cities they’ve been either living in or traveling through when she decided to give him the slip. I love how the second verse manages to wriggle its way around the usual songwriting sin of rhyming a word with itself – “This ain’t the first time that you left me/Remember Reno, Taos, and Tempe/Remember Carlsbad, El Paso/And that second time in Tempe.” He seems to be stifling a chuckle when he delivers the next line: “Yeah, you pulled a lot of fast ones/But this last one is your last one.” He knows he’s just pulled a fast one on the audience, and he figured, might as well hang a big ol’ lampshade on it. I love this song for that. The chorus basically plays the world’s smallest violin for her and accuses her of crying crocodile tears: “There’s the front door, thanks awfully/And if you’ve gotta cry, cry softly.” A bit rude, but cathartic.
11. Oh Lord, Pt. 3
Why is this song Part 3? I can’t find a part 1 or 2 in Josh Ritter’s discography, unless perhaps he’s deliberately name-checking someone else’s songs that I don’t know about. This another up-tempo romp, bringing back the “two-note country bass” I mentioned earlier and the saloon-style piano, and also throwing in a bit of Gospel influence. It basically puts a bunch of semi-ridiculous lyrics together for the sake of snappy rhymes, all in service of a chorus that asks, “Oh Lord, will you ever, ever have a plan for me?” Unlike the weightier questions about God’s plan for a man’s life posed in “When Will I Be Changed”, this one doesn’t seem designed to be taken seriously: “Been dedicated to freedom/And the American Legion/Got invited to Paris/By a real Parisian/Been the been and the worstest/Composed my own curses/Got my heart broke so bad/They had to call in the nurses.” I mean… come on, he had to have thrown those words in there just because he was amused at how slickly they rhymed in ways that the listener probably wouldn’t anticipate, and then he worked backwards to get some semblance of a story from there. If so, that’s a hell of an amusing way to write a song.
12. Thunderbolt’s Goodnight
Ritter’s really milking the storm imagery for all it’s worth on this record, which I guess explains the painting on the album cover. Since there was a song about lightning earlier, it makes sense to have one about thunder as well, though this is also a pretty gentle one. In some ways it reminds me of “A Little Fire”, an acoustic track that came second to last on Parker Millsap‘s excellent album The Very Last Day, since it’s about a man and a woman trying to rekindle their love for each other. He knows the darkness he’s been through has taken its toll on her, but he seems to be on the verge of finding his way out of it, promising that the darkest night precedes the dawn: “I thought the sun was going down/But the sun was coming up.” It’s a simple metaphor, but Ritter gets a lot out of the melody he’s chosen for this song, nimbly finger-picking his way through on his guitar, which gives it more of a briskly flowing motion than simple chord strumming would have.
The closing track feels like a slow dance that takes place between two lovers after everyone else has cleared out of the dusty old bar for the night. Here, Ritter seems to finally be over his past demons, still standing with his girl in his arms, thanking her for sticking with him through thick and thin. The gist of it is summed up in the chorus: “I can’t believe that we were ever strangers”. She’s so important to him now that any memory of the time before they met is distant and foggy, as if it were someone else’s life. It’s a meaningful note to end on, though I’m not really thrilled by the dusky instrumentation and the dry tone of Ritter’s voice, which honestly sounds a bit bored. There had to have been a way to keep this song slow and intimate without it seeming like such a dreary performance. Then again, as I think back on all of Ritter’s albums that I’ve heard so far, the closing track is generally a more muted affair while the big show-stopping ballads and/or the most affecting love songs tend to show up somewhere in the middle. So at least he’s consistent.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Shaker Love Song (Leah) $.50
Feels Like Lightning $1
When Will I Be Changed $.50
Train Go By $.50
Myrna Loy $.50
Cry Softly $1.50
Oh Lord, Pt. 3 $1.25
Thunderbolt’s Goodnight $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: