After the introspective, sparse and emotionally naked nature of post-divorce album Beast in its Tracks, Josh Ritter has returned purged and reenergised for a collection of what he terms “messianic oracular honky-tonk”, an album that, recorded in New Orleans with Trina Shoemaker at the helm, leans heavily on a percussive sound and character-driven, religious imagery lyrics.
Adopting a voice-distorting vocoder, Sermon on the Rocks takes to the pulpit with a “heebie jeebie man in ecstasy” to preach apocalypse with the ominous, scratchy Birds Of The Meadow. It’s a striking opener and sounds like nothing he’s ever done before. Fuzzy distortion remains in place with the romp along Young Moses, reverb slide guitar skittering as, mixing mythologies and cultures, Moses turns his back on sheets of silver and plates of moon to head out in search of Johnny Appleseed and drink the cactus truth. We’re talking different shamans here and, with lines about being a beast and setting his serpent free, you have to wonder what sort of commandments he’s bringing down from this mountain.
Musically, the track’s decidedly evocative of Paul Simon, a regularly cited reference, and that’s also the case on the softly sung, acoustic strummed two-minute Cumberland with its tumbling verses as well as the jaunty A Big Enough Sky and, to some extent, the six-minute piano-backed Homecoming with its click percussion and trumpets, the narrator returning to the town where “the tree of good and evil still stands” but which has his heart. The line “nights are getting colder now, the air is getting crisp, I first tasted the universe on a night like this” is as good as anything Simon’s written.
The theme of returning home surfaces several times. Getting Ready To Get Down is a sort of Woody Guthrie hoedown about a young girl who was packed off to Bible school for four years to save her soul returning to prove even more of a rebel (“you didn’t like me then probably won’t like me now”) against her pious hometown’s fundamentalist morality where “to really be a saint you gotta be a virgin” and “Jesus hates those high school dances”.
On the mid-tempo piano ballad Where The Night Goes, a track which references Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison, awaiting the return of an old flame, the “tough girl from a bad town”, who took of to LA to find herself while he stayed home, the narrator reminisces on the past with “those long nights old cars, back roads and the boneyards”.
If there’s a whiff of Springsteen about that, it’s there too on the shuffling acoustic blues Henrietta, Indiana, a folk-gothic story about a mill town fallen on hard times and the repercussions on a particular family where disillusion, despair, drink and eventually murder take their toll.
It’s also a stylistically diverse collection. Seeing Me Round, a literal and metaphorical return from the dead, is a sparse electronic blues with puttering beat and sombre minimal keyboard notes that briefly swells and expands midway through, while, a song about his broken marriage and new love (“lying wide awake in a different house with different arms around you”), The Stone is slow, acoustic-guitar backed world weary ballad about the way pain and the past never let go (“the stone may roll but it’ll search you out”). Stabbing keyboards junkyard blues Lighthouse Fire returns to the distortion of the opener while album closer My Man On A Horse (Is Here) is an echoey vocal cowboy campfire trot-a-long (complete with a “hidey hidey hidey ho” chorus) mixed with hints of 60s doo wop, the rider seemingly death, finally come to relieve the narrator of their constant pain, a song that brings the album’s theme of escape to a bittersweet conclusion.
Musically and lyrically, it’s a stunning piece of work that finds Ritter at the peak of his very considerable powers and is, arguably, his best album to date. It also comes as a special edition that includes a bonus CD of the original demos, stripped of some of the effects, making Seeing Me Round a very different track, for example, while Where The Night Goes becomes a Seeger / Springsteen stadium rock anthem and a more full-blooded Cumberland features prominent harmonica, whistling and yelps. Two albums of the year in one package then.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now – Order via Amazon