Josh Ritter – In the moment
“I kinda hope it does,” he says with a grin. “I don’t have anything to lose. I think the test of being a real artist is continuing to write if people don’t like your stuff. Especially during the times when people don’t like your stuff. Like Neil Young or Bob Dylan in the ’80s. There’s a lot of people that will just give you a free pass no matter what you do, but if there’s people that get pissed off at what you’re doing…
“If you’re not pushing it a little bit every time, then there’s really no point. You can always write songs, but what’s really interesting about it unless you’re always changing things here and there?”
In fact, Historical Conquests is the second Josh Ritter album in a row to challenge ideas about who he is and what he does.
After a self-titled, self-released debut in 1999 (the year he graduated from Oberlin), Ritter emerged nationally in 2002 with the wide release of Golden Age Of Radio, a collection of low-key ballads and midtempo folk-rock that showed debts to Dylan, Nick Drake and even — in its evocations of small-town life — John Mellencamp. The follow-up, Hello Starling, was in the same vein: a lot of fingerpicking and strumming, a good Dylan pastiche (“You Don’t Make It Easy Babe”), smartly elliptical lyrics and pleasantly sandy vocals. The addition of Kassirer’s piano and Hammond organ broadened the sonic approach, but Ritter’s guileless melodies still seemed a little indistinct, skilled yet not quite singular.
If any song pointed in less familiar directions, it was “Wings”, a dreamy western fable of missionaries, railroads, and angels. With a moody tune reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and lines such as, “We waded through the marketplace, someone’s ship had come in/There was silver and begonia, dynamite and cattle,” it caught the attention of Joan Baez. She recorded it on her 2003 album Dark Chords On A Big Guitar, which put Ritter in select company; the record also included songs by Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Greg Brown, and Joe Henry.
Hello Starling also solidified Ritter’s standing as a full-blown star in the republic of Ireland, long a haven for singer-songwriters with a gift for melody and storytelling. The single “Me And Jiggs” from Golden Age had already hit the top 40 there, and Hello Starling turned Ritter into one of the country’s most popular acts. In the Irish music magazine Hot Press, readers voted him their favorite International Male Performer.
“That’s the only place where you can see Emmylou Harris and a punk band on the same bill,” Ritter says appreciatively. “They don’t care. Genre doesn’t mean a thing. That’s really exciting. That’s how the Pogues could have existed, or the Waterboys. Music that would be ridiculous in a certain way makes absolute sense, and people just love it. And they’re so lyrical. I always think that their kind of verbal technology is like ten years ahead of us. They have these just great ways of telling stories. If you can tell a joke, you’re king of the bar.”
His first exposure there came courtesy of a chance meeting with Glen Hansard, leader of Irish band the Frames (and star of the acclaimed indie film Once, directed by Hansard’s ex-bandmate John Carney). Ritter was playing at an open-mike night during his post-college years in Boston and the Frames happened in. Hansard invited Ritter to open for the band on a 2001 tour of Ireland, and Ritter met enthusiastic response. He has been careful to nurture that fan base ever since.
“It’s the first place I really played live for a lot of people,” Ritter says. “And luckily people kept coming back, because I wasn’t very good at all.”
Both Golden Age Of Radio and Hello Starling were released on the New England indie label Signature Sounds. The positive response to the records got Ritter signed by V2, the international label of British billionaire Richard Branson. When he finally wrapped up the epic touring that followed Hello Starling, Ritter wanted to do something different with the next album — something that reflected his growing ambitions as a songwriter, and also the tumult of the world around him: the barely tamed rhythms of the life of a touring musician, the broader uncertainties of the times.
The result was The Animal Years. Released in March 2006, the album intends and achieves a seriousness of purpose without tipping over into cliche or self-importance. It was produced by the indie-rock texturalist Brian Deck, whose work with Modest Mouse impressed Ritter.
The Animal Years has a big, chamber-folk sound that foregrounds Ritter’s voice, which sounds more assured than ever. The Pink Moon-ish murmuring of Golden Age Of Radio is all but gone. The opening track, “Girl In The War”, sets the tone for the album with a debate between the apostles Peter and Paul that clearly, if allegorically, addresses the Iraq war: Paul’s a stay-the-course kind of guy, but Peter’s mostly worried about his girlfriend making it home alive. It’s among the least obvious songs spawned by the current conflict, and one of the most artistically successful.
The album builds to a climax on the 9-and-a-half-minute “Thin Blue Flame”, an old-fashioned visionary folk epic that finds Ritter sounding something like a disaffected preacher watching the apocalypse roll in: “Border soft with refugees/Streets swimming with amputees/It’s a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/It’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart.” The song is unapologetically portentous, but also — with its swells of drums and piano and torrent of images — dramatically turbulent.
The album showed a more direct engagement with spirituality than Ritter had attempted before, although in the circumspect manner of a seeker rather than the certainty of an evangelist. “The keys to the Kingdom got locked inside the Kingdom,” St. Peter laments on “Girl In The War”, “and the angels in there fly around but we can’t see them.” The plaintive “In The Dark” is a frank expression of doubt that ends with a sober assessment: “It’s hard to see how there could be/So much dark inside the light.”
But Ritter comes to a more hopeful position at the end of “Thin Blue Flame”. After cataloguing suffering and wrongs, he returns to his hometown, with its “raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay,” and concludes: “Angels everywhere were in my midst/In the ones that I loved, in the ones that I kissed/I wondered what it was I’d been looking for up above/Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up.”