The current political climate has locked away Josh Ritter’s otherwise luminous smile. He’s struggling to reclaim it, but the 29-year-old songwriter admits that confusion defines his mood for the time being. “Everyone seems to feel so right about themselves, and I just don’t feel that way,” he says. “I don’t feel sure about anything – in my own life or the politics of the world; it’s just a tremendously uncertain time.”The current political climate has locked away Josh Ritter’s otherwise luminous smile. He’s struggling to reclaim it, but the 29-year-old songwriter admits that confusion defines his mood for the time being. “Everyone seems to feel so right about themselves, and I just don’t feel that way,” he says. “I don’t feel sure about anything – in my own life or the politics of the world; it’s just a tremendously uncertain time.”
Ritter tries to make sense of things on “Girl in the War,” the opening track on his stunning new album, The Animal Years. In just five lines, he pieces together a raft of abstract historical ideas that address the eradication of decency he sees washing over our nation: “Peter said to Paul, ‘You know all those words we wrote/are just the rules of the game and rules are the first to go’/Now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun/I got a girl in the war, man/I wonder what it is we’ve done.”
The song is gripping and urgent from the start, but Ritter raises the stakes by filtering this deft moralizing through the eyes of love. The girl, whose “Eyes are like champagne/They sparkle, bubble over and in the morning/all you got is rain,” immediately transports this war from a faceless netherworld into Middle America’s living room. Few songwriters dispatch their tidings as eloquently.
“I wanted to write about how weird the world is without beating anyone over the head with politics,” Ritter explains. “I think everyone understands how weird things are. The important thing for me was to write about the ambiguity and the uncertainty in the world. I think that’s an under-expressed sentiment.
“[‘Girl in the War’] is a really important song for me, like when you’re reading a book and you can tell the paragraph when everything kicks in. That’s how it was for me with that song. I think all the characters that were going to be in the album and all the feelings I wanted to express came out of that song.
As “Girl in the War” suggests, Josh Ritter is one of this generation’s most cerebral songwriters. He looks the part. Settling into the mixing room at Engine Studios, Ritter bears an uncanny resemblance to a first-year literature professor – slightly unkempt beige blazer over a blue Polo shirt, thoughtfully trimmed beard, thick head of curly hair prone to temper tantrums. He’s long-faced and workmanlike.
“The new stuff is less folky in a lot of ways,” Ritter discloses as producer Brian Deck cues a few songs, starting with “Lillian Egypt.” “There’s a lot more kick to a lot of the songs. Like, Neil Young can make a record that’s supposed to be a folk record, but it’s not. I feel like that’s the direction that this is moving.” Ritter retreats to the back of the room and begins pacing circles.
Now, here’s the thing. There’s a danger in an achievement like “Girl in the War.” It’s luminescence can hobble even the best surrounding tracks. In the case of The Animal Years, though, each song fortifies the previous one. Clearly, a seismic shift occurred within Ritter while he was writing The Animal Years. At the same time he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the state of American politics, Ritter was growing boundlessly as a songwriter. The results are undeniable.
While much attention will be paid to the political aspects of the album, Ritter is equally persuasive when searching for more personal truths. Take the conceptual elegance of “Monster Ballads:” “The ones and zeroes bleeding mesa noise/and when you’re empty/there’s so much space for them/You turn it off, but then a still, small voice/comes in blazing from some vast horizon.”
Even at his most playful, Ritter is a lyricist at the top of his game. “I remember back in Illinois I found her/The lily of the valley/The lily of the West was a rose,” he sings on the whimsical horse-and-buggy chase, “Lillian Egypt.” “The daughter of the biggest big town banker/He kept her like a princess/I stole her like the Fort Knox gold.”
With each track, Ritter ups the ante, but there’s no question that Deck has played a considerable role in raising the standard. In fact, the producer proves himself an ideal match throughout The Animal Years by not forsaking the rustic gloaming of Ritter’s 2001 breakthrough Golden Age of Radio or the understated beauty of 2003?s Hello Starling.
Instead, he conjoins them with his gloriously skewed notions to create a new definition of modern folk music. The Animal Years remains traditional in that Ritter’s clean finger-picked guitar lays a constant foundation on tracks like “Best for the Best,” “Lillian Egypt” and “Girl in the War,” but Deck’s discriminating doses of Hammond B-3 organ and artful piano runs fill out the sound. He and Ritter simply make a magical team. In automotive terms, The Animal Years is Charles Stewart Rolls shaking hands with Frederick Henry Royce for the first time.
This partnership comes at a time that finds Ritter shying away from love songs. It’s a gutsy move for a guy who’s primarily made a name as a romantic balladeer. “I wasn’t really in love while I was writing this record,” Ritter explains. “I hadn’t been going out with anyone for a while, and I couldn’t trust myself to write about love. I don’t really care for music about somebody’s feelings anyway. There’s enough about that already. If you want to talk about your feelings because your girlfriend left you, sometimes that can be helpful. But it’s not the only thing.”