REVIEW – I thought singer-songwriter Josh Ritter was going to be very excited to talk to me last week. After seeing him be genuinely affable on stage in September, I assumed the next time we’d meet, I’d be catching up with an old friend.
But Ritter turned out to be just a thoughtful guy who didn’t mind explaining the details. Topics ranged from the religious undertones of his music to his influences to the creative process of following up a masterpiece.
But throughout it all, Ritter was being just the Ritter you hear on the record – unflinching, direct and honest.
At a glance, Ritter’s separation from The Animal Years to The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is severe. He seems like a man who has been waiting four records to start playing some rock ‘n’ roll.
Ritter’s sensitivity and ability to propel a song into a cloud of gaping sentiment (“Wait for Love”) allow the record to breathe before rolling into rompers like “Real Long Distance.” A listen to “To The Dogs or Whoever” will reveal something that Ritter has never done but pulls off confidently.
Since the release of his past three records, a new Ritter has appeared. He is now unafraid to try something completely new while refining his polished skill set. Sure, the NPR folk and Ritter purists still love him, but he’s undoubtedly gained a broader fan base thanks to a radical change in approach.
“You can’t do one thing over and over,” Ritter said while driving to his home state of Idaho. “You want to push yourself in different directions and force yourself out of the expected and into the unexpected. I really didn’t want to accidentally make The Animal Years again. I wanted to make a record that was its own thing. I went in with a different attitude: to be very, very impulsive, piano-driven and funny.”
Ritter’s attitude about writing songs was also apparent when we talked about critics comparing him to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Most musicians will say it’s a compliment to be equated to those artists. Ritter relayed that attitude, but his response was a bit critical of music in general.
“In the end, if you’re just chasing someone else’s tail, you’re not doing anyone favors,” Ritter said. “I am influenced by other people’s music, but music is the least of my inspirations. Life in general is pretty inspiring. Think of all the books, and other things that are there to inspire us in our daily lives.”
And that’s where Ritter comes alive as a songwriter. Beyond the music, he seems incredibly well-versed in conveying a story. It’s never in a predictable fashion, either. “Next To The Last Romantic” tells the tale of a man who believes he’s the last “true romantic” on earth and is on a journey for whiskey and women, neither of which quench his thirst.
The song “Temptation of Adam” is the closest Ritter comes to making a biblical reference. He describes an apocalyptic state, where Adam keeps a woman trapped in a bomb shelter and questions whether to press a red button to cement their love. Adam and Eve, meet Ritter. Ritter, keep making songs like this.
“I don’t know what the consequences are of putting religious stuff in my song,” Ritter said. “I’m not worried about my career. Most people missed out on a huge mine of stories and ideas there. I think people are missing out on those stories and psalms and we’re cutting out 30 or 40 percent of our culture. You can talk about it and use it in the songs and so much comes out of it.”
Sometimes you get life-changing songs.
Chris Zakorchemny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.