Few musicians are as beloved to me as Josh Ritter is. Sure, his music borders on adult contemporary at times but is there a better songwriter than Ritter? I’m beginning to think there’s not. In fact, I don’t think it’s too bold of a statement at all to say that Ritter is the best lyricist of our generation. Sure, I haven’t heard every lyricist that there is to hear but in niche of folk and alt-country, Ritter is undoubtedly tops. For proof of this, you needn’t look any further than Ritter’s last album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Namely, “The Temptation of Adam” is what’ll seal the deal for Ritter. Telling the tale of two nuclear scientists in a bunker engineering a bomb to bring about the end of the world, Ritter’s Adam falls in love with Marie and the song starts out with what might be the best pick up line I’ve never gotten to use (yet!): “If this was the Cold War, we could keep each other warm.”
It’s affecting moments like this that make Ritter such a treasure. To say I was looking forward to Ritter’s latest album, So Runs The World Away, is an understatement. I was damn near salivating for it, as were many people I knew, ranging from my step-mom to friends to fellow music journalists who shared my affection for Ritter. You see, Ritter is a consistently solid musician whose worst songs are still more intricate and memorable than a lot of musician’s best work. He knows how to tell stories in his lyrics whilst weaving multifaceted melodies expertly behind his words to the achieve the best of emotional reactions. Ritter makes music for lovers and the heartbroken in equal turns. Rarely if ever does he disappoint and So Runs The World Away is no different.
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Unlike Ritter’s past work, So Runs The World Away seems to only have two kinds of songs on it: Either they’ll break your heart and blow your mind (“Rattling Locks”, “Another New World”) or you’ll find them fairly forgettable (“Lantern”, “See How Man Was Made”). Fortunately, the amazing songs far outnumber the forgettable ones and those amazing tracks are more than affecting enough to make up for any lost ground.
Nothing is so affecting, however, as “The Curse”, an early track on So Runs The World Away that is a perfect showcase of just why Ritter is such a gem. The story is as follows: An archeologist unearthing tombs in Egypt awakens a mummy. Where Timber Timbre would make things take a turn for the spooky, Ritter turns his story into a smart romance that plays out as a clever metaphor for romance with a touring musician (“She’s just one more rag now he’s dragging behind him”).
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I don’t cry easy but somehow, Ritter is one of the few artists that can consistently squeeze a tear from out of my hardened heart. By the time “The Curse” ends bittersweetly, with the archeologist heroine succumbing to old age while her mummy lover grows stronger, unable to break his “curse”, if there’s a dry eye in the house, those eyes belong to people without souls. Sorry to tell you but if “The Curse” doesn’t affect you, you probably don’t have a soul. With “The Curse”, Ritter has not only penned the best tune on So Runs The World Away but also perhaps of his career. And that’s saying something as the man has written some damn good songs.
Elsewhere on the album, Ritter’s strengths shine just as strongly. “Rattling Locks” is a searing number chock to the brim with dark bitterness so palpable that the listener can’t help but feel wronged just listening to it. “Another New World” is a beautiful, macabre tale that, before I’d heard “The Curse”, I was once convinced, after hearing Ritter play it in concert, that it would be the album’s standout track. Later on, “Long Shadows” seduces you with it’s adorable optimism as it tells the tale of two lovers that are probably very real portraits of Ritter and his wife, Dawn Landes, who’s vocals can be heard on a few occasions backing Ritter.
So Runs The World Away’s only shortcomings lie in the fact that, for the most part, Ritter and The Royal City Band aren’t doing anything too different. “Rattling Locks” is a nice change of pace from Ritter’s usual work but songs like “Folk Bloodbath” and “Lark”, no matter how lovely they are, would not sound remotely out of place on any other of Ritter’s releases. Granted, Ritter isn’t exactly one of those artists who you go to for groundbreaking material. You go to Ritter because you know what he’s about: Solid song writing and timeless tunes that have an appeal that’s almost universal. Ritter isn’t about being edgy or trying something new. He’s about doing what he does and doing it well. I just can’t help but want him to push his own boundaries ever so slightly.