The joy of pop
by Erick Trickey
I can't imagine what it's like to be a longtime Josh Ritter fan and hear his new album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, in which our hero, his four-man band, and the eight-piece Great North Sound Society Orchestra wield violins, saxes, and a flgelhorn as well as guitar, piano, and organ as they escape singer-songwriter and Americana pigeonholes with surprise bursts of instrumentation and the images of Ritter's lyrics firing off in manic cadences. What did he say? The song's about Joan of Arc? Casey at the bat? How does he do that? It's a mystery that'll take several listens to solve. For now, just lose yourself in the sounds and the word associations.
Five years and three albums ago, Ritter was a promising, relatively conventional songwriter attracting a cult following with his album Golden Age of Radio. His sensitive side proved a little cloying on songs such as the album-opening "Come and Find Me," his high voice aching, his images overwritten ("I keep you in a flower vase/With your fatalism and your crooked face"). He explored the Americana genre with mixed results, sometimes sounding inauthentic as he slipped in and out of a twang and anachronistic language, but usually carrying off the songs with poignant, winning lines. "West of her, there's a place I know," began the song "Roll On," which ended with the woman he pined for "happy someplace east of me."
By last year's The Animal Years Ritter had found his voice. He harnessed his influences to create a consistent sound: pretty, somber, and restrained. On the leadoff track, "Girl in the War," the apostle Peter, wrestling with doubt, tells the apostle Paul he's ready to damn God's aloof angels if they don't protect his soldier girlfriend in battle. In the next song, wolves slink from the woods into the singer's house to haunt him. Almost all the album's images recur in "Thin Blue Flame," a nine-minute vision of an urban utopia
ruined by war. Ritter sounds young and unpolished again as he packs more syllables into his lines than they can hold, but the rawness expresses his anger, flying out of control, at God who "made the world in seven days / And ever since he's been a-walking away."
As good as The Animal Years is, it didn't hint that Ritter would discover joy through exquisitely crafted pop on The Historical Conquests. His vocals are distorted, then double tracked; drums kick through a foot-stomping chorus; an old-timey piano tinkles as a modern organ pumps and swirls. "Right Moves" survives a too-simple chorus with inventive verses and happy horns. On "The Temptation of Adam," Ritter plays with nuclear war imagery, hiding away with a woman inside a missile silo. His wit moves so fast it takes repeat listening and pondering the song's title to realize that he's reversed Genesis, that he's thinking of pressing The Button and destroying the world so that they stay in their underground Eden forever.
Ritter plays the Blind Pig on Monday, October 15.
[Review published October 2007]