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By this point in musical history, you’d think artists would have squeezed absolutely every drop of possibility from heartbreak. But you’d be wrong: there’s still gold in them thar broken hearts, as Josh Ritter proves on his latest release (out today), The Beast in Its Tracks, an exquisite record of his journey through divorce and recovery.
I’ll admit that I’m hardly impartial when it comes to Ritter. I’ve been a fan since 2000’s Golden Age of Radio, and my admiration has grown with each succeeding release, particularly as his ambition grew (and sound palette expanded) through The Animal Years, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and So Runs the World Away. He and his long time collaborators, The Royal City Band, are charismatic live performers, and I’m truly convinced that, even in the micro-fractured musical environment we find ourselves in, Ritter will eventually be recognized as one of the all-time great American songwriters.
On The Beast in Its Tracks, he switches his focus from the Biblical imagery and Americana of his recent albums to the intimate and challenging setting of the break-up of his marriage and his rediscovery of love. His songwriting has never been stronger: strongly melodic, sharply observational, open and emotional without sap. And Ritter and the band take the perfect approach to these songs, scaling back to a quieter and less sprawling approach. His voice and acoustic guitar are upfront in the mix (you hear the fingers on the strings) with the band hanging out just behind. You can picture them playing together in a circle in a kitchen in a cabin somewhere.
It’s easy to slide into bitterness and anger when writing about a break-up, but it’s a credit to Ritter’s generosity and honesty as a songwriter that he flirts with bitterness but never lets it overwhelm the music. Take “The Appleblossom Rag,” a solo acoustic number (which starts with a whispered conversation between him and a female voice) in which he sings that all his ex left him this “appleblossom rag" but then refers to himself as a fool for singing things that are so sweet, sad and cruel. In “A Certain Light,” he sings about being happy for the first time in a long time, but the memory of his ex lingers in the chorus: “And she only looks like you in a certain kind of light, when she turns her head just right.”
He doesn’t let himself off the hook either, calling himself a miser, and low and mean in the upbeat “New Lover,” in which he tries to wish his ex well, but admits in the end if she’s still by herself and lonesome, that would make him happy, too. And in “Evil Eye,” he seems to be observing himself fall into bitterness and suspicion while still in his marital bed.
The emotional core of the album is the fraught and beautiful “Joy to You Baby,” the second-to-last song on the album, in which Ritter sees himself floating above a city, looking down and wishing joy to his former lover (and eventually to himself) while recognizing, in a stunning lyrical passage:
“There's pain in whatever we stumble upon
If I never had met you, you couldn't have gone
But then I couldn't have met you, we couldn't have been
I guess it all adds up to joy to the end”