I don’t expect much from Josh Ritter. Just one thing, really-the truth. The fact that he’s a brilliant songwriter/singer/performer is a given. All I want from him is to be honest with me. And time after time he has proven to be the most genuine guy around. There are writers who pen confessionals, and then there are people who lay it out straight and tell it how it is. Josh Ritter is a real straight shooter.
When the news came out that Josh and his wife Dawn Landes were to be divorced, I felt really sad for him. I’m no different from every other celebrity-obsessed American, and I really want the best for him as he has given me so much. But then I read his book, his tweets and random other writings, and I decided that he was in a much better place now. He put out the EP Bringing In The Darlings, which I felt would close the book on this part of his life. That was proven wrong when he announced that The Beast In Its Tracks is all about his divorce-the events leading up to it, the heartbreak during, and the lingering sadness and optimism following. Dylan did the same thing with 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, though he always denied that his divorce played any part in the songs.
More than anything Josh Ritter has always been a firm believer in love. Through the course of the record you can feel his faith in the notion being challenged, but he comes through stronger on the other side-wiser and wary, but devout to the idea that with the right person life can be magical. The Beast In Its Tracks is not a cinematic, ornate record like Ritter’s last LP So Runs The World Away. Instead it is a meditative, deliberate look at the agony humans put themselves through to try to find that magic.
While earlier records like The Animal Years and Historical Conquests gave us a lot of toe-tappers, you’re more likely to be listening to this one while sitting quietly like a voyeur, hearing the inner workings of Ritter’s mind. Musically there aren’t a lot of big moments to point out-in fact, the album sounds deceptively simple. It’s the closest to a solo album he’s made since Golden Age Of Radio, but his Royal City Band is credited as usual.
“Evil Eye” gets in some good lyrics, but the album doesn’t really take off for me until the fifth song, “Nightmares.” It makes clear that there was another man involved in the breakup of his marriage. It’s a fairly wordy song, and the best stuff comes at the end when he says, “Drag him down where I got took. And though he may not want to look, I’ll sift Hell for an equal pain, shard-borne beetles boiling rain. I’ll prop his eyes and down them feed the same Hell you both fed to me.”
While that lyric sounds awfully bitter, it’s the optimism that shines through on many songs that is the most shocking. The song prior to “Nightmares” is called “Hopeful,” and it’s a musical miracle brought to life by keyboardist/producer Sam Kassirer. If Jon Brion ever produced a Josh Ritter record, I would hope for ten songs that sound like this one. It’s a great post-breakup song, intimating a thought everyone should get to have: “These days I’m feeling better about the man that I am. There’s some things I can change and there’s others I can’t. I met someone new now I know I deserve. I’ve never met someone who loves the world more than her.”
I mentioned Dylan earlier, and that’s a comparison every great songwriter has to deal with. On The Beast In Its Tracks I actually get more of a Paul Simon feel. The way Ritter plucks the strings of his guitar and uses his voice reminds me a lot of Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. The feeling is particularly strong on “In Your Arms Again.” (And again on “Bonfire”)
When this album was announced, Ritter released the single “Joy To You Baby.” It doesn’t come until very close to the end, which I think is a good place for it. I like the song, but the material that comes before it is so strong I couldn’t imagine hearing it earlier. Definitely the most radio-friendly tune, but I don’t think he really cares about soundscan numbers.
The first time I listened to this record in full, I couldn’t get past how slow it felt. Even knowing what the record was about, I still felt like it needed a little more pep. Now that I’ve had a chance to listen a few more times (if you can, listen with headphones) I’ve gone from “It’s an ok record,” to “Oh my god! What about when he says (insert lyric here)!” For lyric junkies like myself, this is the kind of album that will keep us talking for years because it is honest in the most brutal and beautiful way.
The Beast In Its Tracks is out now. I bought the huge vinyl bundle with lyric book and t-shirt and everything else (totally worth the money for this limited edition of 1000 clear vinyl-I got number 165). If you don’t want to go that route, you can just download it on iTunes.
Josh is already touring, and he’ll be hitting pretty much everywhere. You lucky bastards in the northeast will get the added bonus of The Felice Brothers opening, so get there early. If you’re in Chicago, make sure you get to The Vic on April 27th!