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Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away

on May 14, 2010, 7:59am

It’s often hard to tell what Josh Ritter is trying to prove with each release. And the fact that he is trying to prove something in the first place is kind of perturbing. There always seems to be some thesis that you can’t quite wrap your head around. Perhaps that’s because it’s not really all that thought out on Ritter’s end. On So Runs the World Away, the Idahoan’s sixth long player, Ritter rehashes some of his most overt influences almost to an absurd degree.  Where that worked out fine on the more than enjoyable Historical Conquests, it feels a little cheap this time. On Conquests, it felt like maybe that was the point he was proving: He was paying homage to his idols, merging their legendary styles with his own. The title seemed to hint at that, anyways. It was executed in such an obvious way, with techniques shifting from track to track, that it felt all right. This time, he seems to imitate more than infuse, and it grows old fast.

I mean, do I really want to hear him beg a gal to be “the light of his lantern tonight” dozens of times over Born to Run bells? We get it, he can do Cohen (“Another New World”), he can do Springsteen (“Lantern”), he can even kind of do Waits (“Rattling Rocks”), and yes, he can do Dylan (“Folk Bloodbath”), but can he even do Josh Ritter anymore?

Upon first listen, a song like “The Curse”, a tender, blossoming piano waltz, might argue that he can, but with such a contrived narrative, it might just be further proof that he’s incapable. In the same vain as Conquest‘s “The Temptation of Adam”, Ritter invents up a complex, unthinkable relationship between two individuals with hopes of bringing you to tears.  A woman, presumably an archeologist, discovers a mummified Pharaoh, nurses him to life, puts him in a museum, writes about him, and then leaves him there. Then he breaks out of the museum, only to realize he can do better than her. She grows old, dies, and then we’re brought back to their poignant little meeting, when he was revived by the mere sight of her eyes. In other words, “WTF?” Where “Temptation” succeeded in its overtly implausible, yet cute circumstances (the last man and woman on earth falling in love in the confines of a bomb shelter), here the story makes less sense, lasts too long, and leaves us wondering what the point of it was. “Temptation” also had the clever title to make it worthwhile (get it? Atom and Adam are homophones . . .).

Even when Ritter tries to tackle traditional, as he does on “Folk Bloodbath” (based on a John Hurt song), nothing really special happens vocally.  He sounds like a reserved Dylan, which isn’t a compliment. Where contemporaries like Sam Amidon inject their own quirky inventiveness into century old tracks, making them their own in the process, Ritter just kind of sings them flatly and produces the hell out of them. And where The Tallest Man on Earth does Dylan in a way that makes you forget Dylan even exists, Ritter just reminds us that the greats are that much better.

So Runs the World Away’s individual songs occasionally leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, which is a shame given how gorgeous the production is. If nothing else, the record does sound amazing; it’s a world of gleaming guitars, volume swells, and tantalizing percussion. In fact, the production and textures save the album from sinking entirely. The songs don’t sound bad in the slightest; they just don’t seem to have much going for them lyrically or vocally—something that really used to make Ritter stand out. If these things were half as good as their production value, this would be a great record.

Post-intro opener “Change of Time” is a slow-rolling, fingerpicked ballad. As it creeps along Ritter’s signature coo, texture flutters in. Mechanized kick-drums, martial snares, retrograde oohs, dark piano, and slide guitar crash into delicate plucking, introducing how good this record is going to sound. But the chorus repeats far too often and far too many times, almost neglecting to provide us with any real meaning. “Rattling Rocks” pounds with the dark fury of T-Bone Burnett and Tom Waits simultaneously. It’s one of the stronger on here, but again, the lyrics suffer, especially in comparison to some of Ritter’s past work. Repetitive and obsolete, there’s not much to work with. Ritter’s numb, pseudo passionate delivery doesn’t do much to help, either. It’s not that Ritter sounds dispassionate here, it’s that his passion seems feigned, which makes it even harder to believe his words. That being said, the tunes are catchy as hell, and you’ll have the less-than lyrics running around your head for a few days. So, if you just want to hear some catchy, well textured songs, then look no further.

But as the album wraps up, the last four tracks remind us that Ritter is still worth listening to for other reasons. “See How Man Was Made” floats on a sea of subdued, shimmering distortion and lush horns. Ritter sounds earnest as well, as his fragile falsetto pleads against the loneliness that befalls so many men. Its doe-eyed persona could show a thing or two to the rest of the album. The Cohen-esque “Another New World” acts accordingly, with a sparser delivery than its predecessor, nodding more than imitating. If every song on here saw Ritter this adoring, So Runs the World Away might be a triumph, but, relying mostly on its pristine production, it doesn’t hold up so well. It’s a sonic achievement, but not much else.