I’ve been a big fan of Josh Ritter since I first heard “Lillian, Egypt” on The Hype Machine years and years ago. He represents something of a confluence of genres–bluegrass, folk, rock–that has steadily gained in popularity until it finally won a bunch of Grammies this year, although Ritter himself has not. Given Ritter’s complicated and hyperliterate songwriting (the man is also a novelist on the side) and my own predilections for such things, I guess it should come as no surprise that he’s something of a darling over on NPR, where his new (and seventh) album The Beast In Its Tracks is playing on First Listen. I’ve given it six listens since it was posted on Sunday. I’ve been listening to it as I write this post.
I’ve never been divorced, or even married for that matter, so the album, which is written in response to Ritter’s own divorce from musician/sound engineer Dawn Landes, is full of subject matter that is probably a little beyond me. It’s in a vein to his previous album, So The World Runs Away, and like that one it is more ethereal and less aggressive than Animal Years or The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. My highlights from this new one are “A Certain Light” and “New Lover,” the latter of which I think offers a syncretism of the ballads of So The World and the bounce found in earlier songs like “Hello Starling,” and “To the Dogs or Whoever.” It’s that same syncretism, which I think pervades the album, which give it less of the luster (it doesn’t quite connect in the song “Bonfire,” for instance, which feels both too fast and too insubstantial) found in either So The World or Animal Years/The Historical Conquests. Which is to say that I like it, but wasn’t in love with it instantly in the same way I was with “Lillian, Egypt” and the rest of Animal Years. Which also isn’t to say that I won’t instantly buy it when it drops on March 5th (because I now have money to occasionally buy music created by my favorite musicians).
But maybe I shouldn’t. Perhaps I am being too hasty my support of the music of an artist I enjoy. Let me stop and consider what could be Josh Ritter’s rueful place in history. According to NPR Disqus commenter “Yogurt Head” (who notes he, supposing he is a he, is a professional musician), NPR would be better served ditching such producers of popular music. Indeed, Mr. Head goes on to offer this bit of profound wisdom:
Just think about how music has devolved over the centuries, and how our cultural decline has been a direct result.
Do think on it. I mean, if we go back a century ago, to 1913, you could note that music was a lot less accessible to many people, as the first radio station in the United States would begin broadcasting in 1916, and the first radio station in the world had only begun broadcasting four years earlier. So most people only experienced whatever music existed within their own ethnic sphere unless they were some place foreign…like Louisiana. So, naturally, there wasn’t as much contribution to culture by people who were, you know…poorer. Which, according to Mr. Head, was better. With less riff-raff, contributing to music and such, “culture” was better and not in decline. And certainly, while there were fewer instruments in the past, meaning fewer different sounds that could be generated, music has devolved. Before, we used to just have orchestral music and early folk. Now we have stuff like jazz-infused post-punk revival music and other simple garbage like that.
So maybe on March 5th you shouldn’t bother buying Josh Ritter’s new album The Beast In Its Tracks. That would be contributing to the horrific cultural decline caused by the musical decline as epitomized by talented singer-songwriters like Ritter.
Because this is the fate that awaits a world with Josh Ritter in it.
For the rest of the week, NPR will be streaming The Beast In Its Tracks over at First Listen.
*If I were Chicky there’d be some number of Hall and Oates here, but I don’t really like ratings and we don’t have much in the way of an established editorial policy regarding reviews, so if you desperately need a number to go with this review, um…312. You’re welcome.