Josh Ritter – Gathering
Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers – 22 September 2017
Josh Ritter certainly has a way with words when describing his albums. Sermon On The Rocks, his previous offering from 2015 was, according to him, “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” Gathering, on the other hand, is, “part roustabout, part psalm” with Ritter delving into a troubled heartland of the soul. The album charts several different courses with Nashville country pop and portentous spiritual statements rubbing shoulders with some gorgeously constructed more intimate moments.
Over the 20 years that he has been recording Ritter has progressed from the youthful acoustic singer songwriter of Hello Starling and Golden Age Of Radio into a more sonically adventurous mature artist. This progression culminated in Sermon On The Rocks, hailed by many as his best album coming as it did on the heels of his more naked “breakup” album, The Beast In Its Tracks. Ritter utilised what some critics called “eighties textures” as he almost rapped his way through songs like Getting Ready To Get Down while Lighthouse Fire was chockfull of organ stabs and breathy vocals conjuring up neon-lit rock videos, the biblically inspired lyrics almost disguised by the slick delivery. On Gathering, Ritter dispenses with the gloss and replaces it with a more organic delivery that is in tune with nature and history.
Ritter writes regarding the album, “This record is the product of a strange and interesting time. When I started writing Gathering, I felt tired of living in the shadow of my earlier self, my earlier work – but more than discouraged, I felt charged with the possibility and the freedom of cutting myself loose from my own and others’ expectations.” Part of this new found freedom might be found in the project that Ritter took on in between Sermon On The Rocks and Gathering when he played a substantial role on The Grateful Dead‘s Bob Weir‘s first solo album in decades. Weir’s album, Blue Mountain, was a thorny collection of grizzled cosmic cowboy songs, an old psychedelic outlaw conjuring up a patina stained version of Americana. Rejuvenated by the Weir project, Ritter apparently had around thirty songs in the bag before he and his band went into the studio and whittled them down to the 13 on show here. It’s tempting to see Gathering as a continuation of the project, Ritter, the acolyte, carrying the torch with the album reaching back into folklore and a time when people were in communion with the elements and God was a palpable presence. As such there are times when the album reminded one of The Band when they were conjuring up their version of American history.
The album opens with the brief Shaker Love Song (Leah) which harks back to the Quaker sect who sang without words, using meaningless syllables instead. Ritter’s voice is multi-tracked and layered here with the song recalling an old sparring partner of Weir’s, David Crosby, and his seminal album If Only I Could Remember My Name. This primitive spell is abruptly broken as the band kick in for the sparkling slice of country pop that is Showboat. With gutsy guitar chords, organ swirls and uplifting horns pulsating throughout the song, Ritter delivers a master class in romantic stoicism which would perfectly fit on the soundtrack of a reboot of Midnight Cowboy. Ritter’s protagonist here prays for rain to help him hide his tears as he looks up at the skies hoping that when it rains, it will pour. The weather again features in Feels Like Lightning, a fine gallop of a song with a cowboy beat at its heart as it skips along like a Marty Robbins number but again a storm is brewing. Ritter describes the song as attempting to capture, “That feeling you get when the sky is suddenly dark before a summer storm – the thunderheads looming at the edge of the fields – the birds quiet. The smell of the gathering electricity in the atmosphere.”
Having promised roustabouts, there are a few moments when Ritter really lets loose. The pummelling beat of Friendamine opens like a frenzied version of Vince Guaraldi‘s Peanuts theme with the piano repeating Guaraldi’s motif throughout the song over an increasingly cacophonous melee of organ and twisted guitar. Cry Softly is another rousing number which has a Bakersfield like feel although it opens and closes with magnificent squalls of fuzz-fuelled guitar as Ritter shows his unfaithful lover the door. Oh Lord (Part 3) is a joyful slice of sanctified country, pedal steel and Gospel choruses competing while there’s a demented guitar solo midway through. Ritter here resurrects his occasional similarity to Paul Simon as the song sashays along in a manner somewhat akin to Simon’s Love Me Like A Rock with Ritter asking the Good Lord for directions.
Bob Weir appears on When Will I Be Changed, the first in a brace of introspective songs that give the album a deep gravitational centre. It’s a deeply spiritual song which rolls along like a sluggish river current swept by Garth Hudson like organ and mournful horns. Ritter pleas for redemption asking, “When will I be changed from this Devil that I am?” and with Weir singing on two verses the song does have a touch of Workingman’s Dead about it.
Train Go By is a delicate meditation on facing facts as Ritter tries to summon up the courage to return to a girlfriend and persuade her he can mend his ways. Dreams is the best cut on the album. Dark and splintered with sharp intrusions from rumbling bass, shards of guitar and sonorous piano chords adding up to a nightmarish atmosphere, the song finds Ritter recounting a lifetime of dreamlike images. Fantastical and mundane experiences tumble from his lips as if he were speaking in tongues, the song, a psychodrama of mental torture.
Gathering is Ritter’s best collection so far of fractured and fearful characters who are battling the elements and their own inner demons. Whether it’s in the joyous tent song Hallelujahs of Oh Lord (Part 3) or the haunting Americana of When Will I Be Changed the overall feel is of searching for redemption and respite from emotional turmoil. The album itself is a roller coaster of emotion with Ritter mining a rich seam of Americana music.
Gathering is out 22 September via Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers
Josh Ritter European Tour Dates
30 – Rough Trade East Instore – from 1:00 pm
02 – Passionskirche – Berlin, GER
03 – Doornroosje – Nijmegen, NL
04 – Paradiso – Nijmegen, NL
05 – O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire – London, UK
06 – Mandela Hall – Belfast, UK
07 – Vicar Street – Dublin, IE
08 Vicar Street – Dublin, IE
10 Dolan’s – Limerick, IE
11 Cork Opera House – Cork, IE
Photo Credit: Laura Wilson