It’s what Josh Ritter aimed for on his new album, his most personal to date.
By Naila Francis
There was a time when Josh Ritter entered his songs with grand ambition and scope.
The much-lauded troubadour has always had a way with literary, panoramic song cycles that dwell in allegory and metaphor.
Consider his last album, “So Runs the World Away,” aimed not only toward more expansive production — an amplification that’s been steadily building since his 2006 standout “The Animal Years” — but stitched together an adventurous assemblage of characters and periods from world history, mythology and literature.
“I was always attracted to the bigness of songs, the largeness. I always felt like a really great song had to have all these elements, and I had to get them in, and they had to be impressive,” says Ritter. “As time went on, and I got more confident and knew I would be around for a while and play for a while, I felt I could let a song be a song and not put so much weight on everything. That’s been really nice. I’m writing so much right now because I don’t feel that pressure.”
Following a period of great tumult and change, his writing veered into even more surprising territory. In 2010, Ritter’s marriage to singer-songwriter Dawn Landes fell apart. The Idaho native and Brooklyn transplant, after years of abstaining from the overtly autobiographical in his music, found himself writing more new songs than he’d ever composed all at once — though this time the lyrics pouring out teemed with the painful truths and fragile openings attending his relationship’s demise.
“What happened is instead of writing about all the other things in the world, I suddenly came right up against a rock wall. It’s a wall so many people run up against. Everybody in the world has had heartbreak. It’s such a universal condition,” he says. “At one point, I thought, ‘How do I write about this?’ I can’t write about it in a way that sexes it up a little. I want to write about it as plainly as possible.”
The result is “The Beast In Its Tracks,” a spare and intimate collection of songs, and his most successful album to date. Released last March, it debuted at No. 22 on the Billboard 200 and No. 8 on the Top Rock Albums chart and has heralded, he says, “a new and honest kind of chapter” in his life.
“I didn’t realize this was going to be the biggest record of my career so far. These are all, like, two-minute songs,” says Ritter, who will bring his acoustic tour supporting the album to the Keswick Theatre on Thursday. “I really felt excited that that happened and it’s really emboldened me to do more songs you just want to sing in your car. They’re songs you just want to carry around with you.”
They are also songs of uncommon generosity and empathy, with a starkness of emotion that acknowledges moving on is as much a journey inward as it is forward. Yes, there were the initial impulses toward bitterness and blame — and they flitter, along with an occasional yearning, on “The Beast” — but that was not the album Ritter wanted to write.
“There was a fair amount of time where the writing was just a chicken with its head chopped off. It was writing by reflex. It was kind of jittery and kind of jerky — just not right. It took a while for my feet to get back under me,” says Ritter, who charts not only the unraveling of his marriage and the fumbles and starts in picking up the pieces but the arrival of a new, and ultimately more satisfying, love on his seventh studio effort.
Today, he is the father of a 1-year-old, Beatrix, with partner Hayley Tanner.
“I’ve heard a lot of records about divorce or heartbreak, but I haven’t heard a lot of them that spend a lot of time dealing with what comes after. I met a great person and life started to take a turn for the better and it was far, far better than it’s ever been,” he says. “At that point, I realized I couldn’t write about anything bitter anymore because I wasn’t feeling it. I was writing some of these songs with this growing realization that they were happy.
“By the time I decided I was going to put these songs all together on the record, I thought they’ll stand on their own and people could take them any way they wanted. I felt I was going to be comfortable with it. I didn’t feel like it was being mean or anything. I felt like I was telling honestly how I felt, my own experience with this transitory kind of time, and maybe other people who went through a similar situation at a specific moment could find a little relief, could see that something could work out in the end.”
By the time he closes the album with the delicate ballad “Lights,” a wondrous, almost disbelieving, acceptance of life’s sweet turnaround, he has also been able to bless what came before, even extending the joy he feels to the ex who once dashed his dreams. That quietly celebratory thread is one that has led him to an unexpected freedom.
“Songs have become more of a refuge and more of a release than they ever were,” says Ritter. “In a good way, I’ve always been touched with a lot of pressure I put on myself. That’s good, but it’s nice to feel like a song is just a dog waiting to play fetch at the beach. That’s more of a fun activity.”
That he is on his first acoustic tour in about six years is fitting, given the deliberately unadorned instrumentation on “The Beast In Its Tracks.”
“There sometimes is a difference between a chain saw and a scalpel. I think the smaller arrangements have a little bit more sting sometimes,” he says — and so, too, the absence of a band. “After a while, I started to miss the subtlety you can get from playing quietly,” he adds. “It has its own bad-ass power that playing loud doesn’t have.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer