The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Sensitive Ritter meets new outlaw Ritter with superlative results
Well-crafted, traditional tunes can expand our historical memory and shed light on the human condition; for this, they’re indispensable. (And here it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what “traditional” could possibly mean after global media saturation. That’s a nasty piece of work to inﬂict on a review of someone’s album, even one as resilient as The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, so in this case let’s just say it’s shorthand for folk-derived genres that don’t heavily avail themselves of postmodern theory or emergent technologies.)
But as much as I enjoy, say, North Carolina Public Radio’s Back Porch Music, my natural disposition tends toward musical styles where embryonic technology has enabled startling new expressions of old ideas about incantation, harmony, meditation and rhythm. I love ambient music and rap, techno and noise, electro-pop and laptop drones. I don’t imagine these styles to be superior to folk idioms predating the extended historical moment when recording technology, consumer electronics, and the digital revolution created new paradigms for making and thinking about music. It’s just that my interest tilts toward the emergent in all things.
I ﬁnd the emergent to be particularly suppressed in the genre known loosely as “Americana,” and if a band is playing into this genre, it takes a lot to get my attention. Sufjan Stevens? Yawn. Wilco, other than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Double-yawn. But I like Josh Ritter. I like Josh Ritter a lot. He’s just that good; the kind of songwriter that sweeps away the techno-conceptual apparatus from my listening habits and opens my ears to more time-worn, pithy expressions of truth. Put simply, Ritter is the most gifted interpreter of Americana, as an arranger and a lyricist, working today.
Granted, just like on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Ritter manages to work some awfully extraterrestrial noises into his earthy, traditional tunes. The first sounds we hear on Historical Conquests—on rambling stomper “To the Dogs or Whoever”—are icy splinters of guitar and piano just like the ones that arduously hoist the Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” aloft, and later in the song, what sounds like reversed, ﬂanged piano makes ragged incisions in the juke-joint shimmy. But these moments are few and far between, artfully book-ending and supplementing the long, limpid passages.
Make no mistake: despite his knack for oddball twists, Ritter could be the Americana poster boy. The Idaho-born musician named one of his albums The Golden Age of Radio, got one of his songs (“Wings”) covered by Joan Baez, created his own American History Through Narrative Folk Music major at Oberlin (after studying the decidedly un-folk ﬁeld of neuroscience), and has a rough-and-ready croon that mixes a heavy dose of Dylan with a dash of Steve Earle's durable twang (in fact, jangling country ballad, “Open Doors,” has a pronounced melodic similarity to Earle’s “Fearless Heart”) and a ﬁne dusting of Appalachian grit.
And here the inﬂuences threaten to issue forth uncontrollably: because Ritter is mining such a rich seam of American songcraft, you’ll hear parallels to Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt. Canadian songcraft, too—how could one not be reminded of Leonard Cohen when Ritter sings a parable about Joan of Arc, Calamity Jane and Florence Nightingale in the belly of a whale, or whenever he’s couching complex human transactions in dense extended metaphors? But instead of bogging down in a catalog of incidental echoes, we’d do better to think about what’s actually happening on the album.
Ritter’s last record, 2006’s excellent The Animal Years, was a carefully constructed affair. Despite midtempo rockers like “Lillian, Egypt” and “Wolves,” it was relatively somber, dominated by twinkling, slow-building waves of guitar and piano. But where The Animal Years excelled in the art of restraint, Historical Conquests excels in exuberance. Ritter and producer/bandmate Sam Kassirer packed a Maine farmhouse with eager musicians, beefed up Ritter’s compositions with keyboards, strings and horns, and chiseled the tunes into dirty, barn-burning bruisers and subtle, rough-hewn ballads. The resulting album is as lean, rambunctious and snarling as its predecessor was stately.
Despite his rep as a sensitive troubadour, Ritter can talk tough. Gunslinger imagery peppers the album, especially on “Mind’s Eye.” Low, sustained piano chords echo through a concertina-wire guitar slash, and Ritter bites off each syllable like the pin of a hand grenade. “I got you in my mind’s eye,” he sings, and while he may be waiting on the “bullet that [he’ll] never see come,” one feels more apprehension for whomever he's addressing, as he makes his “mind’s eye” sound more like a bull’s-eye. Liam Hurley’s muscular drums, which splash and explode across the record, lend credibility to the slit-eyed outlaw stance Ritter adopts on the edgier songs.
But when he’s not addressing “real mean mommas,” as on the piano-fueled rave-up “Real Long Distance,” Ritter can still do gentle with aplomb. On “The Temptation of Adam,” amid feathery acoustic arpeggios and breathy horns, he spins out a pitch-perfect vignette about tentative love inside a bomb shelter, letting most of the grit sift out of his voice. He affects the same frictionless purr on “Still Beating,” a mushy yet affecting ballad that slowly lathers ﬂickering acoustic guitars into a lambent orchestral blur. And two different versions of “Wait for Love” ﬁnd him at his loosest and most retiring, intoning the hopeful refrain all around a shaggy chord progression.
While it’s tempting to divide Ritter's songs into two piles—"bawlers" and “brawlers”—to take a cue from Tom Waits is a mistake: Any given track on Historical Conquests would be a bit of both. Nowhere is this balance of emotional vulnerability and square-jawed resolve more perfectly balanced than on album standout “Rumors,” where Ritter narrates the tale of a heartbroken musician who “can’t seem to forget you, and the music’s never loud enough.” Creeping piano and drunkenly lovelorn horns tensely interlock to evoke the sorrow-dampening music, and while Ritter could’ve gone too far by inserting explicit musical counterparts to lyrics like “I put a whip to the kick drum” and “the string section’s screaming like horses in a barn burning up,” he doesn’t—he’s got too much tact and talent to fall back on such ham-handed gestures.