Thursday, April 25, 2013

Josh Ritter: The Beast in Its Tracks

Josh Ritter's new album, The Beast in Its Tracks, opens with a minute-long fragment of a song addressed to a former lover: "Last night I saw/Someone with your eyes/Someone with your smile/Someone with your smile/We danced/And I regret that she asked me to/'Cause she didn't have your arms." This image of attempting to move on whilst preoccupied with a former love is the overarching theme of this album. The Beast in Its Tracks feels an awful lot like the songwriter without his mask on; an attempt at confessional - if not autobiographical - work. Musically, The Beast in Its Tracks is in keeping with Ritter's established sound; acoustic guitar, crystal-clear vocals, and strings that enhance the songs without being intrusive. "Bonfire" sounds remarkably like a classic Paul Simon song, and wouldn't sound out of place on any of Simon's early solo records. But this time out there are no third-person narratives about mummies doomed to live and love eternally, or tragic first-person reminiscences of Arctic explorers. What we have instead is a beautiful collection of songs about starting again in the wake of a love affair, and the singer's feelings of exhilaration and ambivalence. There is a tension to the lyrics about starting anew. It's as if Ritter is trying to convince himself that he's okay ("I'm happy for the first time in a long time"), but his misgivings are on display on every song ("I can't pretend that all is well, it's like I'm haunted by a ghost"). I think the key to this recurring theme lies in track nine, "The Apple Blossom Rag". Seemingly recorded live - the song begins with unintelligible whispering near the microphone, and what sounds like plates being cleared in the background - "The Apple Blossom Rag" is bitter, funny, and wistful, all at once, concluding with the heartbreaking self-realization: "Lord, I'm such a fool/For things that sing so sweet and sad/But are so [expletive] cruel." Whether this move toward more personal songwriting proves to be a permanent one for Ritter or a mere detour into "breakup album" territory, The Beast in Its Tracks is well worth your time.