If I had to pick an artist that was my all time favorite, the choice would be fairly easy: Josh Ritter. I first came across his music when I heard him opening for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at the Waterfront in Burlington, Vermont. It was a fantastic concert, and something about his music really stuck with me when I first heard it. His concert was part of a warm-up for his latest (at the time) album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which had been preceded by Animal Years, two excellent albums, both stellar examples of singer/songwriter folk-rock. I was hooked on his sound, and all of his albums remain on fairly constant rotation in my own music library.
Ritter's latest album, So Runs The World Away, needless to say, has been a highly anticipated album on my part. When I saw him for the second time last year at UVM, he played a number of new songs which have since made it onto the new album, which only made the anticipation grow. Like The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, this album delves heavily into the storytelling roots that Ritter's been known for, combined with a rich background of sound that makes the album stand out from the pack.
What makes the album even more interesting is the macabre and somewhat gothic nature to the lyrics and sound for So Runs The World Away. Songs like The Curse, Rattling Locks, Folk Bloodbath, The Remnant and Long Shadows really give the album a delightfully darker nature. Out of the entire set of songs, the best song (and it's hard to pick just one), is The Curse, a quiet waltz that tells the story of an Egyptian mummy who awakes when an archeologist discovers him, and he falls in love with her as she takes him to New York City. He learns English and speaks to her, and the two fall in love, but as he gets stronger with new life and pulls away from her, she grows older, and dies, while he lives on. It's a touching story of love and destiny, one that is expertly played out by Ritter and his band, and it's certainly going to be one of my favorite songs from the group.
A couple of other songs on the album carry through with some extremely hard hitting stories: Folk Bloodbath, the story of a, well, bloodbath with a haunting gospel sound to it, while Another New World, the story of an explorer, forced to break up his ship for firewood has a very delicate, chilly sound with some fantastic lyrics. Beyond the story-style songs, other songs on the albums deal with slightly less-concrete themes, such as Change in Time, Southern Pacifica, Rattling Locks and Lantern, each with their own distinctive sound and feel. Ritter has excelled at albums that vary so much in their tone and style, and this album is no different: there is an enormous amount of variety and a certain richness to the sound that makes it a wonder to listen to time and time again.
This also isn’t to say that the album is an overly dark one: Lark sees Ritter positively channeling Paul Simon with his voice and guitar work, Southern Pacifica has a nice, easygoing feel to it that recalls an older, nostalgic time in history, Lantern is a bouncy, exciting song that really carries a lot of Ritter’s energy, and Orbital is full of movement that flows nicely towards the end of the album. The darker elements of So Runs The World Away simply tends to be a bit more interesting, with some very cool stories that really mark Ritter as an expert singer/songwriter, who’s only grown stronger with each successive album that’s come out. Musically, this album blew me away. There’s a real diversity to the sound here, from horns to piano, to a bass clarinet at one point, which both makes the song sound a bit different, with more depth, and demonstrates that there’s a bit more thought put into the album and songs, but not enough to be overwhelming or really take the listener out of the experience. Moreover, the album feels different, as The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter felt different from Animal Years. In both instances, there’s certainly a progression in the sound and experience that the band wants to impart, and I’m thrilled that they haven’t gone back to rely on what worked last time: they continued forward and found what worked this time.
What really stands out for me with So Runs the World Away is the storytelling, something that fits nicely with other songs on older albums. Songs like The Temptation of Adam and Lillian, Egypt, among others, hold to the greatest things that a song can do: tell a story, and in that, give something for a listener to relate to and learn from. This particular album is full of science fiction and fantasy like elements, either in the lyrics, themes or song titles, but moreover, the emphasis on songwriting, and exploring beyond a really simple concept, like in most rock & pop songs out there. That’s not to say that those songs don’t have their own place: they do, but what makes Ritter really stand out is that he’s one of the few that really goes beyond that, telling stories of silent film stars, a couple in a nuclear missile silo at the end of the world, a mummy come to life: these are fun concepts, putting these very common concepts into different contexts, which makes someone think a little differently about something that they may have taken for granted: one of the strongest points of the speculative fiction genre.
This collection is easily the best set together that has been released by Josh Ritter and his group – certainly all of the songs on the album hold a lot of appeal with their somewhat geeky nature, but there is a general level of quality and care that a lot of other albums really don’t hit when released. Ritter has hit that mark already, and surpassed my expectations.