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As time ticks on and an artist’s body of work grows, attention will often turn to questions of trajectory. How is it developing? Is it getting any better? Is anybody particularly bothered? Since the late Nineties, American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter had been industrious in the turning of heads and the stirring of hearts, but it was 2006’s magnificent The Animal Years that heralded defining change. Stylistically, it was a leap onwards; a deliberate plunge into bigger, expansive sounds, an unadulterated embrace of lyrical challenge from a classic folksinger. The weaving of lingering melody, unusual storytelling and masterful metaphor – whilst prominent in the back catalogue – sparkled and struck hard on this collective of utterly compelling subject matter. As the songs chimed far and wide, localised hubs of fanatical support (accrued through incessant touring) were soon pieced together by waves of critical acclaim, and 2007’s follow-up The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter served only to substantiate these. It is against this backdrop, the emergence of a truly commanding identity in songwriting, that album #6, So Runs the World Away is unveiled.
So, given the weight of the previous material, where to now? Ritter has talked fondly of an invisible guiding force central to his writing inspiration. He characterises this as a rambunctious and insatiable inner monster, one that feasts greedily upon all that his master surrounds himself with. The tastier the accoutrements (be it books, movies or people) the grander the creativity relinquished by the beast. It’s a charming and telling analogy. For what becomes clear as the songs unfurl is the sheer scale of Ritter’s quest to source a winning diet. His excavation has transcended the literary and the musical, finding favour in scraps of mythology, physics, maritime expedition and black comedy. It’s from these that a batch of extraordinary narratives and characters are forged and distilled into a three-track backbone of outlandish tales. A firm course can be plotted from the parabolic waltz of Egyptian Mummy-inspired love chronicle ‘The Curse’, via the whimsical murder ballad of ‘Folk Bloodbath’ and culminating in the desolation of ‘Another New World’. This trio defines the identity of the record - it’s a show of pure invention, both subversive to the mainstream of song construction and utterly captivating.
But there’s so much more besides this. Intertwined amongst the storytelling is a dimension of verse-chorus-verse accessibility, imbued with an air of lightness. Opener ‘Change of Time’ is a floating, contemplative display, delivered though a stream of nautical imagery. It sets a precedent for wonderfully lush instrumental layering, a constant that embellishes the finger picking/vocal interplay across the album. Here it is bright, warm and tender. And so it is once more on the sauntering ‘Southern Pacific’ and the delicately pretty ‘Lark’.
Most fascinating though are the outings of darkness and obscurity. There’s recurring interpretation of the human condition, borne of a frustrated sceptic. “There ain’t nothing new about the world that I ain’t learnt from just standing here on this spot” maintains Ritter on ‘Rattling Locks’. It’s a brooding tangle of guitar snarl and synth fuzz, belligerent and indignant in the rejection of hope and man’s quest for comprehension. The punchy march of apocalyptic ‘the Remnant’ is of this ilk too, although this time it’s decidedly dense and elongated, descending into a maze of eccentric rumination. ‘Lantern’ is the crowning glory of the tumultuous side to Ritter’s commentary. Desperation is articulated in clean, sharp couplets (“it’s a hungry world out there, even the wind will take a bite”) juxtaposing the idea of redundancy of faith (“tell me what’s the point of light, that you have to strike a match to find?”) against a resolute determination for harmony. Throw in the charm of spangled guitar and organ swirls atop measured percussive drive, and it’s a pop cornerstone to a highly varied record
Josh Ritter is a man with plenty to say. So Runs the World Away is testament to his unwavering commitment to master the delivery of his word. And master it he has. By shirking an introspective approach, he has succeeded brilliantly in wending a line between intricacy and intimacy. The output is a genuinely majestic creation, brimming with a richness of substance to both enthral and devastate.