In 2006 Idaho musician Josh Ritter released his critically acclaimed album “Animal Years,” a meandering and sultry compilation of complex (yet precise) folk songs about loves found and lost, longing, and the art of wandering. At times dreamy, at times haunting, “Animal Years” proved Mr. Ritter to be a rare breed: that musician who, though his aspirations are great, seems to achieve more than even he hoped. Now, he has set the bar even higher.
In a year which has seen several well received releases by notable folk artists, such as “Bright Eyes” album “Cassadega,” veteran husband and wife duo “Over the Rhine” with “Trumpet Child,” and fantastic newcomer Ezra Furman and the Harpoons’ debut “Bringing Down the Doors,” Ritter’s “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” is a gem– the gem, in fact.
The album begins with the raucous and playful, piano driven, “To the Dogs Or Whoever,” an oh-so-Bob-Dylan romp which happily encapsulates the diversity inherent in the folk form. With references to Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane, Joan of Arc, (all floundering in the belly of a large fish), the unfortunate Casay Jones (you know, the one who was up to bat once upon a time), the Crimean War, and a certain pill popping General, all sung about at a break neck speed, it is a whale of a song . Yes, it’s a bit of a departure from “Animal Years”, an album which moved at a slower pace and which was clearly content to thoughtfully brood. But Ritter fans, and fans of folk music, will not be disappointed with this opener. In fact, what “To the Dogs Or Whoever” might do best is prove the diversity also inherent in Ritter’s abilities. He is proving himself a musician and songwriter of immense talent.
Yet, following an explosive and even hilarious song about gunfights and showdowns, the album truly gets rolling with the third song, “Right Moves,” perhaps the best folk/pop song I have heard in a long time. It’s a foot tapper, carried by a wonderful mix of piano and horn; listeners will be hard pressed to keep from doing a little dance or twirl when listening to the emphatic and hopeful chorus: “am i making all the right moves, am I singing you right blues? Is there a chance that I could call you, just to see how you are doing?”
It’s the kind of love song worth listening to. The one that makes it clear that lovin’s never quite the same as makin’ out, it’s never quite as easy, the kind that knows that feelings come and go, that sometimes things come between even the most in love, yet still leaves room for hope. The song ends with a glorious mix of wit and sensitivity, an hopeful ode to being in love one moment at a time.
The next song, “The Temptation of Adam,” is a brilliantly written ballad reminiscent of the songs from “Animal Years.” By this song that I have become convinced that Ritter is truly one of the most ingenious song writers of our time. Consider:
If this was the Cold War we could keep each other warm I said on the first occasion that I met Marie We were crawling through the hatch that was the missile silo door And I don’t think that she really thought that much of me
I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb She just came along and started to ignore me But as we waited for the Big One I started singing her my songs And I think she started feeling something for me
It goes on later:
Then one night you found me in my army issue cot And you told me of your flash of inspiration You said fusion was the broken heart that’s lonely’s only thought And all night long you drove me wild with your equations
Oh Marie do you remember all the time we used to take We’d make our love and then ransack the rations I think about you leaving now and the avalanche cascades And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions
The song plays out like a quiet, pleasant folk tale. It’s hard not to hope this particular cold war goes on and on. It’s a funny thing how the best love stories take place under the most difficult circumstances, and while Ritter possibly was just playing word games and having some literary fun (as he should), “The Temptation of Adam” remains a subtle reminder that love’s worth a little work.
Next, “Open Doors” is a sad and lonely song which conjures images of quiet mountain houses, cold with melancholy, and winter nights in windswept forests, the branches of dense pine trees hanging low and somewhere the hoot of a mournful old owl permeating silence. Much like his contemporary Sufjan Stevens, Ritter has a profound ability to use nature poetically; he seems to clearly understand the way a certain kind of sunset, breeze, or vista can enhance and birth human experience: emotional, physical and spiritual.
Ironically, the next song “Rumors” is perhaps the most bitter on the album. Or, maybe it too is playful. Comprised of a series of relatively dark metaphors and mostly about splitting up, it seems to be the least obviously hopeful song on the album.
“Rumors” is followed by a joyful, summertime-ish, minute-and-a-half long, acoustic piece that, placed in the middle of the album as it is, seems to be a composite of the album itself: it seems to say this album is a little different, folks; this one’s got a bit more hope. And from here on out the album maintains that same aura.
“Wait for Love” is a slow and melodic lullaby of sorts (but again, it’s a reminder that love takes a bit of work from time to time), and “Real Long Distance” is a piano driven ode to home and family. One wonders if Ritter penned this song while backstage in Ireland or on a tour bus in Des Moines.
“Next to the Last True Romantic” is another raucous ballad, this time apparently about a cowboy looking for love in the bottle, sometimes in the saddle, trading whiskey for woman and woman for whiskey and one horse for another.
Finally, it is in the last three songs that the most hope is visible. “Moons” is a short and haunting song about faith and escape; “Still Beating” is a rousing number about endurance and perseverance, a song for the little guy if you will; and “Empty Hearts” is another foot tapper about self-sacrifice and love: complete with strings and piano and a rousing and beautiful vocal performance by Ritter, it is a perfect finale for the album (though a another version of “Wait for Love” follows it).
It’s hard to say whether this album is better than “Animal Year’s,” in that they are very different (and since “Animal Year’s has played a particularly important role in my life). Perhaps, time is the only really effective determinant. But, regardless, this new album is yet another wonderful conquest for Josh Ritter: add it the ever-more amazing canon of his work.
It is clear, furthermore, that Josh Ritter had a ball making this album. And it is more clear that Josh Ritter is one of the supreme songwriters of his time. His exploration of the eternal themes of hope and love and endurance, whether through ballad, story, lullaby or colorful metaphor, afford listeners another opportunity to challenge themselves and wrestle with important ideas. And like all good songwriters and story-tellers Ritter has the great ability to inspire. I, for one, believe that it is through beautiful albums like this that our heart’s keep beating.