It came as a shock to find out Josh Ritter is on album number six. He’s one of those artists, like Ed Harcourt or Ron Sexsmith, who I bundle together as fine craftsman: intelligent, literate songwriters, steadily constructing solid bodies of work which I ignore imagining that may just be a bit dull. This clearly says much more about me than Mssrs Ritter, Harcourt and Sexsmith.
So here’s “So Runs The World Away” that sixth album released earlier this year. The title is from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Whilst making this record Ritter was also working on a novel and of course this Idaho-native turns out to be the son of two neuroscientists – so far, so brainy. And my first listen did conform to (my) stereo-type: finely crafted singer-songwriter fare which treads a middle ground between genres so you could never label it ‘americana’ or ‘alt-folk’ (or indeed ‘alt’ anything). On that first listen the two tracks that stood out were ‘Folk Bloodbath’ and ‘Rattling Locks’.
The first starts as a gentle lullaby building to rousing folk anthem in which the lives and deaths of a host of American folklore characters collide. It is not as gory as it sounds but delivered with just the right amount of spooky atmospherics. ‘Rattling Locks’ is equally atmospheric - taut, jerky guitar and ominous drumstick clatter soundtrack the dark thoughts of either a spurned lover or possibly a stalker. If the dial had gone around a few notches it could easily be Califone.
It took a few more listens for me to open up to other songs - once I’d got past my cloth-eared prejudice. Ritter’s voice is some between Josh Rouse and Nick Drake – not as warm and boyish as the former and not as dry and frail as the latter. Initially it can appear a bit characterless – but on closer listens it is subtly effective, even emotional. Some songs are quite poppy – ‘Lark’ is a Paul Simon-like ditty – or are overloaded with romatic yearning and start to drift, like ‘Southern Pacifica’. But overall, even where there are polished exteriors to songs, Ritter manages to give them real depth and substance.
Some lyrical conceits could easily head-down cul-de-sacs marked ‘cliché’ or ‘pretension’ but Ritter steers them away from this. So although ‘Lantern’ is build around the premise “be the light in my lantern”, Ritter creates a more panoramic sweep to the song placing this in the context of an epic, dangerous, even Biblical, journey and struggle. ‘The Curse’ is a conversation between lovers, one apparently immortal awaking after sleeping for thousands of years. Rather than toe-curling it is actually poetically tender and delivered with a graceful minimalism.
Ritter on "So Sails The World Away": “It’s a record pre-occupied with the extremes of scale… where the songs felt large to me.. I wanted them to feel like the steel hulls of massive ships sliding by deeply from below. Where they were small, I concentrated in on the smallest details that I could."
As well as the cover artwork and above words from Ritter, the record is full of imagery of ships and sea voyages. One or two of the thirteen songs do drift a little close to the doldrums and normally I want a bit more grit or rawness from a record (the emphatic bluesy stomp of ‘The Remnant’ satisfies some of my need for a bit of anger). But Ritter manages to engage through subtle shifts in mood and tone, smartly poised musical arrangements and literate, layered, but not too brainy lyrics.
An mp3 of ‘Change of Time’ is available via Ritter’s website in return for your email if you want to sample more. And later this month Ritter tours this album with The Royal City Band (most of the musicians who played on “So Runs The World Away”). Support for all dates is from Dawn Landes - who is also married to Ritter and is definitely worth arriving early to see.
17 Sep Town Hall, Oxford
18 Sep Oran Mor, Glasgow
19 Sep Albert Hall, Nottingham
21 Sep St Georges, Bristol
22 Sep RNCM, Manchester
23 Sep Barbican Centre, London