Guys, I’ve got an idea, but I’ll only tell if you promise not to steal it (unless your name is meredith@MOSHERY, in which case we should talk).
Okay, so it’s a podcast called “Let’s Drink 3 or 4 Beers and Talk About How Good Josh Ritter Is,” which is kind of like “Albums I Would’ve Reviewed If I Had a Music Column When They Came Out,” in that it is very literal: every week, I’ll drink 3 or 4 beers, and I’ll have a co-host who will drink 3 or 4 beers, and then–with the healthy buzz of folk soda–we’ll talk about how good Josh Ritter is.
Most music benefits when it’s accompanied by libation (church songs are better after the Blood of Christ), and Josh Ritter is no exception. But I don’t want to be drunk when I’m listening to Josh Ritter, just drinking–just loosening the cap off the bottle of inhibition. That’s why we’ll keep it to 3 or 4 beers, to keep things under control, with only a splash of emotional vulnerability. Because sometimes that’s what it takes to wrap my mortal mind around the merit of Ritter’s work; sometimes, I need the heady lift of whatever brewery wants to sponsor the podcast and send me free samples to fully understand the breadth of it all. (I also realize that the phenomenon I’m describing is why regular people smoke pot before spinning records, but I’m bad at drugs, which is why I reach for a tall, cold can of the future sponsor of “Let’s Drink 3 or 4 Beers and Talk About How Good Josh Ritter”™ when I’m looking to loosen up! Please enjoy responsibly.)
As proof of this, I give you 2006’s The Animal Years, an album at the intersection of the most recent Ritter–the “kinetic energy” of Sermon on the Rocks–and Hey Starling‘s “young aspirant folk pup,” a description once used in regards to early Dylan, but which applies here.
In its totality, The Animal Years is accessible and affecting and penetrating, built on the back of songwriter’s songs–the kind of song that can be transferred from a coffee house to a truck stop to a concert hall, set to a single acoustic or a full band. In this case, that bigger sound is a credit to the Royal City Band, who aren’t yet (in 2006) called the Royal City Band: that moniker is pulled from “Thin Blue Flame”–maybe The Animal Years’ most masterful track–for billing on later albums.
These two forms of delivery play out over the course of the record: on songs like “Idaho” and “Best for the Best,” Ritter is a Guthrie-esque solo act, who sounds suited for riding the rails and recounting those travels melodically. But there’s also a sonic shot of life that permeates the album, hinting at future electricity, notably with “Lillian, Egypt,” “One More Mouth,” and the aforementioned “Thin Blue Line.” Here, the full-band sounds colors the atmosphere of a collection rooted in heartland melody and inventive folk tales that stretch decidedly outwards. It’s musical movements are as precise as the album’s stories, stretching from the traditional expectation of a singer-songwriter’s sound to an Americana version of 70’s rock–something like CCR filtered through Tom Petty filtered through the early days of Greenwich Village (which is a terribly convoluted metaphor, so just refer to “Wolves” and “Lillian, Egypt”).
Above all else, though, The Animal Years is lyrically driven, grounded in Ritter’s uncanny ability to weave tangible, narrative vignettes with a wordsmith’s point of view. He pulls poetry out of everyday speech, and immersing yourself in it feels like that part of traveling when your ears wake up to the fresh turns of phrase inherent to some unfamiliar accent or dialect. Ritter puts forth this textured attention to detail with an ease of delivery, applying it to mailable stories that can wrap themselves in the universe of a small town, then stretch to something cosmically large. He mixes the prose of a dime store cowboy novel, then applies it to with narratives with biblical proportion: “Good Man” is probably the catchiest track of the album, as one of its most memorable scenes is sung through a smile–“They shot a Western south of here/They had him cornered in a canyon/And even his horse had disappeared/They said it got run down by a bad, bad man.” It’s charmingly classic, a verse with levity that leans on a John Wayne-type or, later, “the villain on the left with the studio mustache” (“Lillian, Egypt”). But he juxtaposes these kinds of folk hallmarks with songs like “Girl in the War,” where we eavesdrop on a conversation between disciples Peter and Paul, as Peter confides in his friend about a girl in the war with eyes like champagne that “sparkle, bubble over, but in the morning all you got is rain.” It defies certain expectation, as he gives religious imagery everyman qualities, and at those points, the album zooms out. It grows larger, and has the sense of passing over all these sights and monuments and characters in a hot air balloon.
It’s not isolated, either: the early narrative threads of the record culminate on “Monster Ballads,” where we’re introduced to Katy, “the fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son, dressed in golds beneath the pyramids,” who’ is set against a chorus of “monster ballads and the stations of the cross.” And as much as any track, “Thin Blue Line,” encapsulates Ritter’s sweeping skill, as it builds over the course of nine minutes, opening with references to Julius Caesar and Hamlet, ending with a spiritual takeaway–“Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up/So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air/Only a full house gonna have a prayer.” The song is a microcosm of the album’s prosperous scope, which is made all the more preposterous by how effortlessly Ritter traverses these landscapes with a mix of scale and locality, like on “Idaho,” the sparest sound of any tracks, mimicking a lonely sailor’s haunting diary: “Out at sea for seven years/I got your letter in Tangier/Thought that I’d been on a boat/’Til that single word you wrote/That single word it landlocked me/Turned the masts to cedar trees/And the winds to gravel roads/Idaho, oh Idaho.”
(After stacking all those lyrics up side by side, I’m starting to realize that it’s possible–probable–that I drink because I envy Josh’s way with words, and his relationship to them. Which makes me word’s jealous ex, who can’t go past three or four, or else I’ll start calling and leaving voicemails, even though I know they’re together.
But I digress.)
The Animals Years has a lot of Egypt, a lot of Illinois, a lot of wolves, and a lot of God, which makes it feel like I’m reading Steinbeck for the first time: I think I get it, then I’m sure I get, then I realize I don’t get it, but I don’t care, because it’s just compelling and beautiful in ways I can’t always articulate.
It’s a crafted narrative, a lyric poem that validates why we call songwriters “storytellers”–because they are.
But Josh Ritter super is: on top of his eight studio albums (this his fourth), he released a novel in 2011, Bright’s Passage, which my sister saw at a bookstore, but didn’t buy me for Christmas because she thought, “Well that can’t be the same guy. When would we have the time?” (When do you have the time, Josh? Could you leave some words for the rest of us?).
So I haven’t read it yet.
But that won’t stop me from making it required summer reading for Mr. Rosenbeck’s sophomore English class. Beyond an excuse to play Josh Ritter in class, I know Bright’s Passage is worth digging into, because I’ve heard The Animal Years and those seven other albums. The book has merit worth being exposed to and challenged.
And then I’ll give a lecture called “Let’s Drink 0 Beers and Talk About How Good Josh Ritter Is.”
Don’t steal that idea, either.
*photo via Illinois Entertainer
Billy is a feature writer and content workhorse, fluent in English. His career highlights include a Twitter favorite from Matt Nathanson, and sitting a few rows behind John Kerry’s hair at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Recently, Billy has played with the idea of getting a dog, but realized that might be too much responsibility. Check out more from Billy on Twitter and at billyrosenbeck.com.