July 22, 2010
Stuff I’m obsessed with~Josh Ritter
I was in the music section of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble again last night. I’d made my selection but pretended to browse for a few minutes. The clerk smiled at me as I approached the register.
“Fuck, he knows who I am,” I thought.
And why would the Barnes & Noble music section night shift clerk know who I am? Because I’ve been there about three times in as many weeks, at about the same, late, time of night, buying yet another Josh Ritter album.
I first heard Josh Ritter in the fall of 2006. I was working an opening shift at Starbucks; it was about 5:30 in the morning and still dark outside. Having been out of bed since 3:30 that morning, and severely sleep-compromised for several weeks due to my rehearsal schedule, I was restocking the displays of gum and after-coffee mints in a dull, dreamlike, semi-conscious state.
In the old days, in the interstitial time when they weren’t promoting a particular CD, Starbucks used to pipe in fairly generic Muzak mixes of folk/soft rock music, which, no offense to the artists, seemed to have the primary purpose of being stereotypically coffeehouse moody, while inoffensive, background. The store managers didn’t seem to exercise much discretion, or even pleasure one way or the other about what came on–we just turned the thing on in the morning, and I was thankful when it was the soft folk mix rather than the soft reggae one.
But this particular morning, this one song came on, and I knew with immediate and perfect clarity through my haze of sleep deprivation, that it was something exceptional, obviously but indescribably distinct, more spiritually mature, from its fellows in what I came to find was “Indie Folk Mix 53.” It had these deep, stark and yet rich piano chords which took hold of something deep in my chest, rang straight through my mental fog, as if matching the resonant frequency of my own soul.
This being the time before every Starbucks had a flat-screen TV displaying the identity of the song and artist now playing, I had to employ my own old method of memorizing a single distinctive lyric (“the fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son“) to go home and Google after work.
And what I found was Josh Ritter’s “Monster Ballads (early version).”
You know how it feels when just the right book or song or album, though great in its own right, meets you at precisely the time in your own life when you need it the most, though you could never have predicted it? It was that. It was a time when everything was hard for me, both personally and professionally. I’d come home every day in the afternoon between Starbucks shift and rehearsal and listen to that song, about driving alone across the desert considering a life of both incredible love and incredible desolation, five or six or ten times, and in the state I was in, it brought me to tears most of those times and yet left me feeling a little refreshed and a little stronger.
I downloaded a couple more individual songs over the years, enjoyed them but somehow didn’t really fall in love with them, until I heard Ritter live on WNYC one afternoon this past May, singing “Moon River,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
And then I fell hard.
I pretty much ran out and bought his latest album, “So Runs the World Away,” having not been buying albums on CD very much for a very long time. And proceeded to listen to it and almost nothing else, for a solid month without even noticing.
How can I even describe this? If you like traditional singer/songwriter stuff, you’d like it. There’s a country flavor, but don’t think of it as country. There’s a folky flavor, but it’s more complicated than that. At times he can sound like a young Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Ryan Adams, or even Bruce Springstein, but it would be unfair to the caliber of his lyrical originality to try to understand him just in terms of his references. He’s got a distinctive but never grating voice, which he manages to use in a different way to suit each album: gravelly and mischievous on his self-titled first album, smokey and velvety on the latest. He has one of the most supple and versatile voices I’ve ever heard, and it seems to only get better with age. I think he might be the best songwriter I’ve ever heard, and that he must be a very old soul–literally a bard from some other time–because the depth of experience both worldly and emotional implied in his lyrics strains believability for a 33-year-old (let alone the 21-year-old he was when he recorded his first album). His songs are populated by epic characters from world history, the Bible, and myths of the American west (Huck Finn, King David, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all make appearances), but given a disarming emotional intimacy, sorrow, and individuality.
And don’t let anyone say again that iTunes has ended the age of the well-made album. Of course it’s made it too easy to sample individual songs and forget the satisfaction of working to appreciate a truly complete album for most people, but given that, for those of us who still appreciate the artistry of the album, Ritter’s craftsmanship is even more delicious. Every one of his albums has a particular narrative or character study as its touchstone, and every single song of every album is purposeful and necessary to the narrative. There is no “filler” of mediocre songs to fill out a CD with two or three decent radio singles. I even dislike a couple of songs, but none of them are pedestrian, one-dimensional or incompletely realized.
Sitting up in the booth at my own show a couple nights ago, running cues, I was thinking “everything is still hard, but I have so much beautiful music in my life right now.” I still sort of feel cheated that I didn’t hear more of or get into this guy’s music earlier in his career/my life…but I guess that I have to accept that now is the right time for a reason.
Oh, and did I mention that he’s easy on the eyes?