Home > Literature, Music, Reviews > Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks: Intellectual Distance and Emotional Ruminations

Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks: Intellectual Distance and Emotional Ruminations

One of the things most worth appreciating about American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter is his considered, thoughtful tone. Ritter has been criticized for the impeccable, highly-crafted composure of his songs and their surrounding production on repeated occasions by the indie-cred gatekeepers at Pitchfork, who place inordinate value upon the appearance of rough-around-the-edges spontaneity that animates fashionable music in our present moment. This purported unconscious artlessness, of course, is no less constructed than Ritter’s conscious artfulness, but the fundamental assumptions of the subculture must of necessity be preserved and left unchallenged, bogus though they may be.

Circling back to our subject, however, we must note that Josh Ritter’s craftsmanship when forming albums of songs mirrors that of a novelist (which he also is). He and his collaborators edit, shape, and discard themes, ideas, feelings, and other artistic elements as if whittling away at drafts of a manuscript. This is the process of all artistic creation, of course, whatever its fuzzier appeals to more ephemeral muses. But Ritter’s final product shows a polish, a complexity, and a style of folk song poetry that aligns it closely with literary releases.

In the past, on his finest records like The Animal Years and So Runs the World Away, Ritter has applied his rich and nuanced songwriting skills to macrocosmic American themes of politics, religion, science, landscapes, and the permeable, unstable boundaries of history. What he has not always applied it to (and this is perhaps more what irks critics like those in Pitchfork’s employ) is his own life, experiences, and emotions. His youthful work displayed some lovely but clearly removed reminiscences of small-town experience (“Me & Jiggs”, “Kathleen”), certainly; and finely-detailed tragic love songs like “The Temptation of Adam” and “The Curse” may well have transmuted personal heart pangs into evocative metaphors. All these songs are undoubtedly touching, despite their crafted nature.

But Ritter has undeniably come to prefer the perspective of the intellectually-involved observer to that of the emotionally-enmeshed confessor (which was never a big part of his repertoire anyway). His greatest composition, The Animal Years’ mighty epic “Thin Blue Flame”, was conceived of as a modern American Dante’s Inferno, a floating dream of love, hate, faith, and disbelief. In the song, Ritter’s narrator looked down on a wide sweep of hope and failure and beauty and cruelty with ruthless clarity, but always already as viewed from a safe distance above, as if peeking over the cusp of a lofty cloud; there is something of Peter Brueghel in this vantage point, overwhelming and impressing us with human and natural detail but remaining at a safe, bemused remove from its muddy implications. One gets used to referring to Ritter’s voice as that of a narrator, rather than belonging to himself.

Josh-Ritter-The-Beast-in-Its-TracksThis is not a problem on The Beast in Its Tracks, Ritter’s latest album and his characteristically meticulous examination of the end of his marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes. There is zero doubt that the subject matter concerns an intensely personal emotional hurt felt by one Josh Ritter, folk singer, rather than by some fictionalized version of himself. Yet Ritter has carved out a niche as a measured, careful writer, and Beast is written from that niche as much as his wider-focused previous work was. As infused with melancholy as songs like “A Certain Light”, “Bonfire”, and “Lights” are, there is both a complex thoughtfulness and an inescapable smile lurking behind the pain, and indeed mostly overtaking it. Even “Nightmares”, with its mildly Boschian invocations of unconscious Hell imagery, has a skip in its acoustic step.

Even a broken heart cannot compel Ritter to discard joy or fairness or rationality; the charming, shuffling lead single “Joy to You Baby” is an admirably magnanimous statement of his essential positive outlook. By his admission in interviews, his songs on the subject for the album were written not from inside the impact zone of the immediate sting of his divorce but from a distance that has allowed for healing, contemplation, forgiveness, and a rejuvenating romance with another.

Most of these stages, feelings, and developments are alluded to, explored, and complicated in the album’s best cut, “New Lover”. “There are things I will not sing for the sting of sour notes”, Ritter sings in the first stanza, and the album is mostly free from recriminations or angry jabs. But in the space of the same song, Ritter show that even he can’t always resist the meaner impulses that come with heartbreak, reluctantly acknowledging that at its sharp conclusion that if his former lover was lonely and loveless, “I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy, too”.

The Beast in Its Tracks, though not as properly superb a record as his more literary folk efforts, is perhaps a stronger statement of Josh Ritter’s considerable ability as a musical conjurer of tone and emotion than anything he’s done. It re-contextualizes the tired and often bitter pop music mainstay of the breakup album, introducing a tone of calm rumination to a genre of songs that tends towards accusatory absolutes while acknowledging the contradictory emotional and mental push and pull of a romance on the rocks. Even with his heart worn quite evidently on his sleeve, Josh Ritter pays great heed to the needlework on his musical garments. As if his devotees would have expected anything less from him.

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Categories: Literature, Music, Reviews
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