Josh Ritter1

Breathing room 

It’s what Josh Ritter gives to both his thoughts and his lyrics, allowing him to weave compelling tales of our times without ever bordering on pedagogy.

By Naila Francis

There is a certain spareness to the songs of Josh Ritter. A deceptive simplicity in the arrangements that whisper against his lyrics, buffeting them occasionally when the intimacy of his musical tales gives way to sweeping orchestrations or feverishly rising crescendos.

But even then, when the scope becomes anthemic or unexpected electronic embellishments insinuate themselves beneath the conventional, there is a leanness, a sense of space that allows his lyrics to breathe — and take vivid, often visceral root in his listeners.

Absorbing the words and images of Ritter’s latest disc, “The Animals Years,” one can almost imagine the 29-year-old singer-songwriter in the deliberate desolation in which he chose to record it. At Bear Creek, a barn studio just outside of Seattle, Ritter was able to go deep into the silence of the remote space and discover what awaited him. And it was there that his songs, strikingly poetic meditations on war, love, faith, home and the uncertainties of these times, came to life.

“The Animal Years,” the guitarist and folk-pop troubadour’s third album, following “Hello Starling” and “The Golden Age of Radio,” is an ambitious undertaking. But Ritter, who will be among the many artists performing at this weekend’s WXPN All About the Music Festival in Camden, N.J., is just the kind of person to pull it off.

His is the kind of unpretentious brilliance — perhaps expected from the son of neuroscientists — that makes for constant contemplation. Innately curious, immensely well-versed in literature and history and as capable of rambling on either subject with a sort of breezy eloquence as he is of distilling a point with articulate succinctness, Ritter admits that he is also, quite simply, odd. And in looking to make “The Animal Years,” the singer wanted to work with someone as weird as he was.

“There are a lot of people I talked to when I was choosing a producer that made me feel like this process of recording a record is a fairly run-of-the-mill pedestrian idea. And to me, it’s not,” says Ritter, who hails from Moscow, Idaho. “A lot of guys said, ‘Here’s what we’ll do. You follow this set of rules and sell a million records.’ I just don’t think you can quantify it like that. Otherwise, everybody would be selling a million records. To me, it’s a real accomplishment when you’ve gotten that far, and a record should be a celebration of all the hard work that you’ve done up to that point.”

And so he entrusted the project to producer Brian Deck, who’s worked in the past with indie rockers Modest Mouse and new folk artists Iron & Wine, and was more than willing to be holed up at Bear Creek with Ritter.

“He was the first guy who didn’t try and sell the idea of record sales to me as inspiration for making music,” says the songsmith. “And he’s not intimidated by not knowing what’s going to happen. That’s really great to me. I feel like that’s what makes recording exciting — the idea that you’re in a laboratory and you’re throwing stuff together and maybe it’ll explode or maybe it’ll just fall flat and be a dud. I wanted somebody who was going to be real turned on by that excitement.”

Ritter’s songwriting, despite its richness in drawing on material as diverse as the letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the historic fiction of Mark Twain and the buffoonery of Laurel and Hardy, is similarly organic. Though “The Animal Years” may seem a themed project at times, given Ritter’s thoughtful preoccupation with the war in Iraq and his artful landscape of yearning characters, the songs developed almost as an extension of his ruminations on the confounding, divisive times we live in.

There is searching and sorrow, anger and futility in “Girl in the War” and “In the Dark,” the former a pensive, deeply emotive sketch that paints a discussion of the war as an argument between St. Peter and St. Paul. At more than nine minutes long, “Thin Blue Flame” takes a more epic approach, playing like a stream-of-consciousness diary entry on the war, abstracted images, both elegiac and enchanting, strung together as Ritter lingers in all the ambiguous spaces far from absolutes.

“They said one of the greatest strengths of George Washington was his ability to look at things as they were, not how he wished they were,” says Ritter, who takes the role of observer over political posturer. “That’s an ability we need to have more of without this self-righteous, moralizing take on things.”

He is searching, too, for a willingness to surrender to the hard questions instead of using nostalgia as an escape or viewing the future as a salvation that may never come.

“Mark (Twain) had this ability to comment and hold a country to account because people knew how much he loved the country. I don’t hear that love of country,” says Ritter. “I’m not talking about nationalism or patriotism, but just believing that this country was founded with good things itself and taking faith in that and this geography that we have that’s just amazing.

“It’s the same with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — their opinions were strong opinions, but they were more interested in asking what was going to happen than saying what should happen.

“What I was looking for in my songs and what I was looking for in reading and thinking about life in general was this idea of America and its turning a corner and transforming into something. That’s where I believe America is. Right now, we’re at this spot and we were there arguably during the mid-’60s, we were definitely there at the turn of century and definitely at its conception. But the record isn’t about wanting the country to turn into something. It’s about watching it turn into something, like standing around looking at a bulb with some flowers and you don’t know what it’s going to turn out to be. I just really love the sense of optimism.”

His audaciousness in taking on such weighty subjects in dramatically eloquent songs that still feel deeply personal has earned him comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and just recently, Paste Magazine dubbed Ritter one of the “100 Best Living Songwriters.” For him, it’s a craft that comes almost effortlessly.

“I never related to any kind of tortured creative process,” he says. “The job and thing that you do, you choose to do it, and I just think there should be a joy that comes out of what you do.”

Ritter wasn’t always so sure it would be music, despite a revelatory discovery at 18 of the Dylan/Johnny Cash duet, “Girl From the North Country.” Listening to that track off the “Nashville Skyline” album, he was inspired to pick up the guitar. Yet when he moved east to attend Oberlin College in Athens, Ohio, he had every intention of following in his parents’ footsteps. Music, however, beckoned with greater insistence, and he crafted his own major, studying the history of folk music as part of an American Studies curriculum.

“Just the idea that you can cut yourself off from reality for hours at a time and create something that’s never been done before — I love that,” says Ritter. “Scientists, they can do that as well, but I had to find my own way of doing that. I would’ve been a dangerous neuroscientist. I wouldn’t have been very good at it.

“When you’re a songwriter, there’s that joy of discovering something new and looking for a way of saying something that means something to you in the shortest time possible. … It’s almost like a smell that comes off a good song, something kind of indefinable. I don’t know exactly what it is. But there should be an honesty about it, and I think a lot of times, the person singing the song has to have written it or has to have understood the song for it to really shine. You have to have that sense, whether the song is sad or happy, that the person writing it was having a lot of fun.”

– The Intelligencer