The first song on Josh Ritter’s seventh album, The Beast in Its Tracks, is a one-verse scene-setter that the brilliant singer-songwriter delivers with his perfected brand of poignant wordplay. Ritter, who for me sits atop an elite tier of modern lyricists, provides a prologue of what is to come on an intimate album inspired by his own recent divorce. Frail and honest and with production ( by longtime Ritter collaborator Sam Kassirer) that calls to mind his voice emanating from the bowels of a well, Ritter sings, “Last night / I saw someone with your eyes / someone with your smile / someone with your smile / We danced / And both laughed that she asked me to / She didn’t / Have your arms.” The lasting effect of Ritter's lyric and production on the single-verse, 55-second opener “Third Arm” is akin to standing naked and vulnerable before a new lover for the first time. It’s a feeling that hangs in the air for nearly every moment of The Beast in Its Tracks, and these moments are both unbearably beautiful and supremely potent with every new visit to the album.
For more than a decade and with few exceptions (Cave, Dylan, Tweedy), Josh Ritter has remained the beacon for compelling, literate lyrics that relay an unparalleled story, floor me on first listen, and leave me awestruck, dissecting their flawless construction with every future listen. From my inaugural listen to the Springsteen-esque perfection of “Kathleen” a decade ago to the jaw-on-the-floor wonder I experienced while obsessing over The Animal Years’ “Thin Blue Flame” and “Girl in the War” and “Temptation of Adam” from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter for weeks at a time, I typically welcome every new Josh Ritter record with overzealous wonder. That’s exactly how I entered The Beast in Its Tracks - eager to hear a young master chronicle the deepest of heartaches. The album I found is, surprisingly, even more sophisticated than I could have imagined.
Since releasing the grand and gorgeous (but, ultimately, less cohesive and enduring as the rest of his catalog) So Runs The World Away in 2010 as a newly married man, Ritter experienced the devastation of young divorce and wrote a captivating first novel (Bright’s Passage, his post-WWI novel about a soldier who embarks on a journey with his infant son in the company of an angel (who takes the form of the protagonist’s horse), while the soldier mourns his recently departed wife). When announcing The Beast in Its Tracks, Ritter wrote:
“I wrote and recorded this record in the 18 months after my marriage had fallen apart— my broken heart wasn’t unique…These new ones felt like rocks in the shoe, hard little nuggets of whatever they were, be it spite, remorse, or happiness…I hadn’t composed this stuff, I’d scrawled it down, just trying to keep ahead of the heartbreak.”
Masterful break-up albums are nothing new in music (personal favorites include Blood on the Tracks, Sea Change, Noah and The Whale’s The First Days of Spring). However, with The Beast in Its Tracks, the Moscow, Idaho native has crafted both the newest addition into the annals of the true greats, and he has crafted a personal journey of recorded heartbreak that is unlike any break-up album that came before it. The differentiation rests in Ritter’s heroic ability to turn pain and anger into intimate songs of nearly unthinkable empathy, kindness and, ultimately, optimism.
On “A Certain Light,” Ritter sings, “I’m happy for the first time in a long time / Came along and opened up a door / And though I know I’ve been in love before / I feel it so much more than the last time / And she only looks like you / In a certain kind of light / When she holds her hair just right.” The unhealthy obsession of being consumed with thoughts of a once-comfortable love who is now gone from his life forever fills a corner in every song on The Beast in Its Tracks. The divorce is fresh and the pain is long-lasting, but Ritter is an impossibly kind soul, and he has an advanced perspective that lets him rise above the ill will, petty name-calling, hateful texting and gossip that preside over even the most mutual of separations. The bitter moments affect him as they do everybody else (an arresting lyric in the magnificent “Hopeful” finds Ritter saying, “She went away and packed all of her love / I could not believe how little there was.”), but he digs deep to cleanse himself and turn any toxic feelings into genuinely compassionate empathy.
On the aforementioned, exquisite “Hopeful,” Ritter opens the song by singing, “Supposedly, it was a wise, wise man / Who said it is better to have loved and lost / Than never to not have loved at all” over a jangling guitar that almost sounds like sleigh bells hovering over a sparse, steady groove. After lamenting “how little” love she provided him in the first place, he sings, “I stood in the cold kitchen with nothing to say / Who would keep the whole world spinning when she went away?.../ She kept telling me about the good things I deserved / That I wanted somebody I had mistaken for her / But one look at my eye and she’d know she was wrong…/ I followed her out into the street in the rain / The whole world stopped spinning and just went up in flames.”
Left on his own and enduring the strife of a love that is no longer, he finds hope. A new lover has entered and erases softens the unbearable pain that held him paralyzed in the kitchen with a gravely bleak outlook for the future. The triumphant chorus finds a redeemed Ritter singing, “She’s hopeful / Hopeful / For me / I’m coming out of the dark clouds.”
The journey from scorned solitude to new-found glory seemingly comes swiftly in these three- and-four-minute songs, but the wealth of conflicting emotions Ritter delivers amounts to a human rite of passage that has been terribly real for most listeners (As Ritter said in that intimate memo announcing the album, "My broken heart wasn't unique."). Time and again on The Beast in Its Tracks, Ritter finds ways to offer heady truths of love and heartbreak that populate the romantic life cycle of man. There are myriad songwriters in the world who can competently string together an album’s worth of volatile putdowns in the face of a romance’s end, but few songwriters dig deep enough to discover the humanity that comes with delivering deeper truths - like genuinely wishing for a recently divorced ex to realize happiness in a healthy relationship with a new lover.
On the album’s thematic lynchpin, “New Lover,” Ritter sings the breathtaking lyric, “I got a new lover now / I know that she’s not mine / I only want to hold her / I don’t need to read her mind / And she only looks like you in a certain light.” It’s an experience anybody who has ever enjoyed a meaningful relationship before hopelessly suffering upon its demise can relate to: he fills the void of what once was by cautiously consuming the company of a similar other on the surface, all the while he avoids giving himself over fully so as not to be burned by the same old agony. Trying to make the best of his new lover while careful not to rehash his previous fate, his ex occupies his mind: “I don’t who you’re with these days / Might be with someone new / And if you are, I hope he treats you like a lover ought to do / But whoever makes you happy / It don’t really matter who / I’ve got a new lover now / I hope you’ve got a new lover, too.”
There are people who will feel a break-up album must be either a hard-hearted assault on the lover who did wrong or a relentless downer of an album primed for maximum tears. Both types of heartbreak albums (and songs) have their merits, and we’ve heard them all before. With the thirteen songs of The Beast in Its Tracks, Josh Ritter has found a way to tap into pain every one of us knows intimately, but his maturity and empathetic disposition allow him to mold universal heartbreak into something quite sublime. It's possible many of us have stumbled upon the wonder that comes from having empathy, rather than harboring hate, in the aftermath of a break-up; however, until Ritter encountered such a crossroads, we had rarely been provided the opportunity to experience the wonderful perspective of forgiveness and well-wishing - even when mired in lonesome turmoil - in popular music.
“Evil Eye,” the first full song (immediately following the single-verse "Third Arm") on the album finds the narrator haunted by the titular presence that makes everyone believe “someone must really have it in for him.” He sings, “Has he lost weight? / Have his lips gone pale, covered in little, white lies? / Oh, the evil eye.” The song ends with a knowing reversal: “Somebody must have gotten hurt a lot / somebody crueler than you thought / Now, you’ve got the evil eye / Oh that awful evil eye.”
So many break-up songs are steeped in narrow-minded depictions of those scorned or scorning; rarely are we privy to the humane presentation of both sides of the coin. Even haunted by the ghost of his ex-lover who inspects his every thought with that evil eye, he comes to the realization that the pain and suffering has resulted in his very own evil eye. Entering the world with such hostility will do him little good other than outwardly directing hate towards his ex, while encountering each new person with a bitter heart. Such is a story we know all too well from songs; that story also has its shining moments, but it's an invigorating thing to have a new perspective from a man who is chronicling his own heroic discovery of a silver lining.
The album artwork depicts a black-and-white illustration of Ritter with suspect eyes cast overhead. You can't help but realize his broken heart and all-hours depression has him worriedly looking for his ex-lover (a Big Brother-like presence), who studies him with that evil eye. He looks anxious and morose. Patches are ripped from his shoulders with smoldering flames rising into the air. There’s little doubt that ex-lover/evil eye has his attention, even after her physical presence is long gone; it’s human nature, after all. However, after listening to The Beast in Its Tracks in full, perhaps the most wondrous act Ritter achieves is making you believe he fully realizes there was never any evil in that eye in the first place.
We love and, sometimes, we lose. The heroism comes in loving again and wishing happiness for those who granted us love in the first place. To do so doesn’t make you – as many may mistakenly believe – meek; it makes you advanced. It makes you a mature soul with a profound perspective. That Josh Ritter has given us thirteen songs of such delicate honesty and hope after his own heartbreak caused his world to stop spinning is a tremendous gift we shouldn’t take lightly.
The Beast in Its Tracks is out March 5 via Pytheas Recordings (US) and Yep Roc (outside US).
* This review was first posted on The Silver Tongue on Feb. 24, 2013.
Josh Ritter - "New Lover" Lyric Video
Josh Ritter - "In Your Arms Again"
Josh Ritter - "Joy To You Baby"
Justin works as a content producer for ChaCha in Indianapolis during the day. He got his start writing music pieces with Laundromatinee in Indianapolis, where he still makes featured contributions. Justin resides in Noblesville, IN, and his personal blog, Division St. Harmony, can be found at www.divisionstharmony.tumblr.com.
His first loves in music have long been The Clash, Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. His personal tastes are fairly broad and include garage, indie rock, classic rock, Americana, roots, outlaw and classic country, punk, blues, rhythm and blues and soul.
Justin takes pride in an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Justin welcomes you to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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