I love silent days crafting sentences alone, but if you put a gun to my head and told me I’d have to trade my maid’s room for the stages of music clubs and universal critical praise and the adulation of America’s smartest audiences.….yeah, I guess I could stand being Josh Ritter.
From his first release, a decade ago, to “The Beast in Its Tracks,” this guy hasn’t made a foolish move. As a writer, he produces lyrics that, if they were prose, you’d underline them. As a singer, he’s like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Paul Simon; there’s one person he’s trying to reach, and that’s you. And in performance, backed by a crackerjack band, he’s mesmerizing: exuberant, goofy, unfiltered and absolutely delighted to be onstage. No one has ever had more fun at a Josh Ritter concert than Josh Ritter.
This time, newcomers may suspect an exploration of darker themes. “The Beast in Its Tracks” is being presented as a “breakup” record because he wrote these songs in response to his wife’s out-of-the-blue announcement that, after just a year, their marriage was over. I understand this shorthand, but I don’t think it will last long. As Josh takes these songs across America — he’s about to start a 37-city tour — I think they’ll connect with audiences more immediately than any music he’s made. And then “Beast” will become his “breakthrough” record.
For a writer who can toss off long, convoluted lyrics, he’s served up 13 fairly simple songs here. And they’re surprisingly jolly — he’s not cranking up the band for take-that-bitch revenge songs. He’s got a new lover; he hopes his ex-wife does too. (He hasn’t totally forsaken clever; in that song’s final line, he notes that if she’s still alone, “well, that would make me happy too.”) His new lover is “hopeful” for him. He’s thrilled to be “in your arms again.”
For the English majors in his fan base, some of these songs may seem like throwaways. They’re anything but. Their strength is in their simplicity, their directness, their universality. We’ve all been stunned by the disappearance of love, and it’s not a feeling you forget. But being lost and getting found and the sheer joy of feeling free to risk love again and having that courage rewarded — who wouldn’t go to school on that? Best to say it straight: simple statement, upbeat music. The songs in “Beast” are like early Beatles songs; the appeal is in the sound, not the words. [To listen to the entire CD on NPR, click here. To buy the CD and get a free MP3 download from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
So you get songs like “New Lover”…..
…and “In Your Arms Again.”
Pleasant. Cheerful. In nasty times, very welcome.
But it wouldn’t be a Josh Ritter CD if it didn’t have at least one song that’s all over FM radio. This year’s instant classic is “Joy to You Baby.”
It’s got an irresistible melody that lodges in your head and won’t leave. And it has a generosity of spirit that’s unprecedented in modern pop music. Remember: these lyrics are directed to his ex-wife:
joy to the city/ joy to the streets/ and joy to you baby wherever you sleep/ tonight tonight tonight
there’s pain and whatever/ we stumble upon/ I’d never have met you, you couldn’t have gone/ then I wouldn’t have met you we couldn’t have been/ I guess it all adds up/ to joy in the end/
so joy to the many/ joy to the few/ joy to you baby/ and joy to me too/ tonight tonight tonight
The inner circle will hear more. Like: Sam Kassirer’s lovely chunky piano and organ. And the English majors will marvel at the way the song begins:
I go to the parties
throw my hands in the air
I drink what they pour me
the cups of who cares
go up in the night sky
up in the clouds
fly over the houses
I’m looking down
Joy to the city
How about that? In 22 words, he gets from a party to 30,000 feet. And from there, it’s quite a view. That’s not just poetic compression, a writer’s trick. That is talent.
A few words about the ending….
There’s pain in whatever, we stumbled upon
If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone
But then I wouldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been
I guess it all adds up to joy in the end…
You can boil that down to “It’s all good” — a pop songwriter probably would. But this is a little more exalted; it evokes Mindfulness 101, basic Buddhism. It’s a hymn to aliveness, a gentle reminder that, somehow, we got here. We’re here now. Here we are. And it’s all good.
This moment? With Josh Ritter in it? As a fan said on a message board, commenting on this song, “Wow, Josh Ritter, holy freaking wow.”