By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 20, 2009
Guitars jangle. A piano ripples incongruously. And that's all the warning you get before “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” blasts into music so alien to Josh Ritter that you might reasonably think there's been some identity theft here.
On this CD, the lyrics are murky and convoluted; on most of the songs, the music rules. The last time I heard a drummer hit this hard was four decades ago in San Francisco, and that poor speed freak was still flailing when they carried him off. The guitars slash. The string section, to steal a line from one of the songs, is “screaming like horses in a barn burning up.” And yet none of it's quite sufficient: “I put a whip to the kick drum/But the music's never loud enough.”
I was sufficiently unnerved by “Conquests” to request a sitdown with its creator. In that interview, Josh made it clear why he'd confounded expectations --- because he needed to. For if ever a CD had generated expectations, it was Animal Years. The public loved it. Critics loved it even more; writers who didn't see Josh Ritter as the next Dylan suggested he just might be the next Springsteen. Can we talk about a burden?
“People start to believe their reviews,” Josh told me. “And the last thing I want to be is another Bob Dylan --- I don't want to be anything to him. What's the point? Sure, poetry is super-important to me, but these songs have another character. They're more about being confident that I can do this.”
Josh is self-deprecating, so he calls the music on this CD “nerd rock”. He's right, in a way; at his shows, pretty young things will never throw thongs at him. Anyway, this CD's too varied to provoke mania --- in addition to the rockers, there are slow songs, a goofball song about lovers in a missile silo, a delicate instrumental and a hearty singalong.
Still, three rockers lead off the CD, with more dotting the sweeter stuff. And it's the rockers that --- cleverly sequenced on your iPod --- last just long enough to make the cardio part of your workout more fun than you ever thought it could be. This is, I can tell you, as useful a CD as anything you'll hear in an aerobics class.
This CD also invites you to play games.
The first is “Name That Tune”, for the music liberally quotes rock's greatest hits. I'm no scholar, but I heard snatches of “London Calling” by The Clash. “My Sharona”, Paul Simon's “Duncan”, “Obladi Oblada” from The Beatles, plus John, plus Paul, The Beach Boys and even the background of the disco hit “Ring My Bell”. Can you find those references? Did I miss any?
Another game is Memorable Lines. The first few times you play "Conquests", zingers come at you almost randomly. I found myself, hours after, smiling at the cadence of “I love the way she looks in her underwear” and “The comedy of distance, the tragedy of separation” and --- from the singalong --- “Don't let me into this year with an empty heart.” But then, with repeated listening, other lines emerged: “She'll know me by the sound of my longing” and “Each silver lining is a crown of thorns” and “Did you look up at the stars and feel something for the constellations?” And then I saw that there were levels and levels to this CD, and that if you stayed with it long enough, you might just find yourself back in the Ritterland you know, the one where spirituality and romanticism and Josh's signature emotion, generosity, are effortlessly linked.
Many listenings in --- you may not need as many as I did --- “Conquests” inspired me. On this CD, a talented guy takes a flying leap into the unknown, and his experiment turns out to be a total triumph. Makes you want to raise a fist and cheer. And more: It returns you to yourself. It challenges you to bring your warehoused dreams down from the attic, to take some flying leaps of your own.
If “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” turns out to be, like “Animal Years”, the CD of the Year, it's not just because of the brash, self-confident music --- it's equally because, in a dark time, it's a gorgeous, steady light.
To buy “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” from Amazon.com, click here.