You know Josh Ritter’s an intelligent guy when you hear that he’s the son of neuroscientists. That knowledge is furthered by the story of how Ritter got started in folk music. Attending Oberlin College in Ohio, essentially the liberal arts college of all liberal arts colleges, creating more doctorates than any other, aside from being the school attended by both Karen O. and Liz Phair, Ritter switched from the sciences to American Studies with an emphasis on folk music. He discovered that most of the big success stories, those of John Prine, Tracy Chapman, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, found its subjects starting out playing in little coffee houses. So why not Josh Ritter? Playing open mike nights in Boston led to his being discovered by Irish band the Frames who invited him to open all their shows in support of For the Birds. While Ritter was still near unheard of in America, he was becoming somewhat of a success story in Ireland. In fact, it took two years for his breakthrough album, Hello Starling to go from indie to major label release in the US. Then there’s the literary and biblical allusions throughout The Animal Years, Ritter’s latest release, and the fact that he hired Brian Deck (The Moon & Antarctica, Our Endless Numbered Days) to produce the album. But what’s even more important than Ritter’s intelligence is the depth of his art, the poignancy to his lyrics and the warmth of the majestic folk rock sound he creates.
The Animal Years refers to how Ritter felt during the years leading up to the release of this album, touring and playing music wherever he woke on tour, trying to make a buck to buy a meal. One has to think, upon listening to the album, that those hard scrabble days will soon be gone. With these eleven new songs, Josh Ritter has set himself alongside some of the best in the business, some of those that he tried to emulate as he started playing coffee houses. His voice is sometimes reminiscent of Jackson Browne and sometimes of a younger Bruce Springsteen, but always with the singular lyrical style that Ritter brings to the table. “Girl in the War” is the first song on the album, and is one of the best songs of the year. Written as an epistle to St. Paul, Ritter sings of having a girl in the Iraq War and looking for answers as to why from both God and the Bush administration. Ritter’s unique wordplay brings us this gem, “Because the keys to the Kingdom got lost inside the Kingdom / And the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them.” “Wolves” features the first appearance of the title animal, one that will appear in numerous other songs on the album, becoming a recurring theme. Ritter’s voice and Sam Kassirer’s piano and organ again heavily evoke Springsteen. Mixing religious imagery with Tom Sawyer on the spare “Monster Ballads” is more of the pure magic that Ritter composes.
The ‘happy accident’ of “Idaho,” a stunning and spare song concentrating on Ritter’s haunted vocals, shows that Ritter can create wondrous music even after a long and frustrating recording session that goes nowhere. “In the Dark” reminds me of what the reverse of the Postal Service / Iron & Wine cover would sound like with Ben Gibbard singing a Sam Beam song. More inspired lyrics appear in “Best for the Best” as Ritter sings, “I spent a few more as the Cairo Crown / A heavyweight wrestler in the Midwest towns / But I was lonesome for a girl who could pin me down / They say the best is for the best but that’s not what I’ve found.” But the true lynchpin of the album appears in the epic “Thin Blue Flame,” a bookend song for “Girl in the War.” This near ten minute song again covers the theme of the Iraq War, summing it all up in a lyric placed in the middle of the song, two great lines amongst many others, “And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck / And like good tragedy that’s what we expect.” The big piano build up puts Ritter on a par with like-minded artists Bob Dylan and Conor Oberst, as he proves that great art can be melodic, accessible, provocative and challenging all at the same time.
Josh Ritter is the reason that I do what I do. What I mean is, when you listen to as many albums as I do, after a while you can start to become jaded, listening to ’80s knock off after ’80s knock off, awash in a sea of musical mediocrity, hearing bad clumsy lyric after bad clumsy lyric. But then someone like Josh Ritter comes along and reminds me that there are truly gifted and inspiring artists who are finally being recognized. Ritter’s lyrics and voice are the stars of The Animal Years, but one shouldn’t forget his subtly magnificent guitar playing, nor the brilliance of his band who complement him perfectly. If you haven’t discovered the music of Josh Ritter, you’re missing out on literally hours of enjoyment, as you’ll undoubtedly end up putting The Animal Years on permanent repeat.