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Josh Ritter: Animal Years

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2006
Category: Rock

Josh Ritter reads Mark Twain. He bows to the example of Leonard Cohen. And then he sits in his Idaho farmhouse and writes songs that speak of our time and speak to our time and aspire to last for all time.

I mean: He’s very ambitious. He had a following from the start. He was the thinking kid’s Dave Matthews, or someone like him. Unabashedly romantic. Shamelessly poetic. And openly eager. In Ireland, this is a winning combination — or maybe, as Ritter jokingly suggests, a potato-growing nation has a place in its heart for a kid who grew up among spuds.  [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

Or maybe it’s that Ritter can write songs that bring chills. I’m thinking, of course, of ‘Thin Blue Flame,’ the second song on this CD, which clocks it at nine minutes plus. The cheapest thing to say is that it evokes early Dylan. (Like that would be a bad thing.) But it’s been forty years since Dylan turned his thin blue flame on the distance between what we say and what we do. We all know more now — things ain’t black and white.  

So Ritter gets to 30,000 feet fast: ‘And over hills and fields I flew/ Wrapped up in a royal blue/I flew over royal city last night.’  And some of what he sees is amazingly beautiful: ‘Dreams were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds" and ‘The lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand.’  But in that royal city…oh, what happens to people is tragic:

Borders soft with refugees
Streets swimming with amputees
It’s a bible or bullet that they put over your heart
It’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart
The days are nights and the nights are long
Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs
And those still looking to the clear blue sky for a sign
Get messages from so high they might as well be divine
And now the dogs are howling at your door
Singing about vengeance like it’s the joy of the lord
Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round
The guilty were killed and they’re killed where they’re found
If what’s loosed on earth would be loosed up on high 
It’s a hell of a heaven we must go to when we die

The piano pounds, the hell intensifies — you feel like your face is burning. Crying would be beside the point; this is just the way it is, the way you’ve suspected it is but hadn’t dared to say in your own words. And here he has. (Watch out, Bruce Springsteen.)  Ritter is not a poet of despair — he’s not going to leave you in the gloom. So the ending:  

I heard my friends laughing out across the fields
Girls in the gloamin’ and the birds in the wheel
The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay
Cicadas electric in the heat of the day
A run of three sisters in the flush of the land
The lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand
The straight of the highway in the scattered out hearts
They were coming together they were pulling apart
And angels everywhere were in my midst
The ones that I loved and the ones that I kissed
I wondered what it was I’d been looking for above
Heaven’s so big there aren’t no need to look up
So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air
Only a full house gonna have a prayer…

And there you are. Limp. Terrified of what’s to come.   

I am happy to report that what follows is mostly jaunty. Fun. Clever. Musical. In Josh Ritter’s universe, it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. It’s just that the entertainment doesn’t come cheap. Or easy. People are going to have to work — to think — to enjoy this CD fully. Thankfully, for you, that’s not a problem.    

To buy ‘Golden Age of Radio’ from, click here. 

To buy 4 songs Live’ from, click here.