Release Date: May 4, 2010
Record label: Pytheas
Genre(s): Alternative, Folk, Singer-Songwriter
The best thing to happen to Idaho since the fry basket Idaho native and Brooklyn transplant Josh Ritter hits a beautiful stride on his sixth album, a soulful combination of conversational folk ballads and powerful gut punches. Ritter’s the kind of artist that will always draw comparisons to legends like Bob Dylan and contemporaries like Ryan Adams—and while So Runs the World Away contains a handful of songs that make those comparisons easy, he also sounds very much like himself and never sways from his unmistakable cadence. He whispers on “The Curse,” stomps on “The Remnant” and, yes, matter-of-factly evokes Dylan on “Folk Bloodbath” when he explains with scratchy sincerity, “That’s the sad thing with life / There’s people always leavin’ just as other folks arrive.
The fifth LP from neo-folk master craftsman Josh Ritter has been conceived as a voyage of discovery. A shimmering aural and lyrical paean to humanity’s essential questing impulse, So Runs the World Away is also well-attuned to the senses of yearning and of existential absence that motivate that impulse. Populated with wandering mariners, lovesick Egyptian mummies, philosophical chemists, mountaintop seers, grim polar adventurers, and recurring black holes, Ritter’s exquisite collection of songs reflects back at those who once looked forward.
The centrepiece of Josh Ritter's fifth album is a piece of folkloric daring. Under the title of Folk Bloodbath, he gathers together the key figures of American murder ballads into one song and interweaves their stories, using a refrain from Mississippi John Hurt as the glue – and so the lives of Louis Collins, Delia Green, Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons become part of one bloody continuum. It's marvellous: seemingly solemn, but the black humour in this procession of gore is signalled by the title.
As time ticks on and an artist’s body of work grows, attention will often turn to questions of trajectory. How is it developing? Is it getting any better? Is anybody particularly bothered? Since the late Nineties, American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter had been industrious in the turning of heads and the stirring of hearts, but it was 2006’s magnificent The Animal Years that heralded defining change. Stylistically, it was a leap onwards; a deliberate plunge into bigger, expansive sounds, an unadulterated embrace of lyrical challenge from a classic folksinger.
So Runs the World Away, the fifth studio album from bookish, Idaho-born troubadour Josh Ritter, unfolds like a Flannery O’Connor, Jim Jarmusch, and Mark Twain road trip. Equally steeped in Southern and Midwest Gothic Americana, the son of a pair of neuroscientists has crafted his most unique collection of songs to date, borrowing characters from mythology, literature, and world history and letting them run wild in the increasingly adventurous, neo-traditional folk style that his become his forte over the last decade. The elegiac, slow-burn opener “Change of Time” sets the stage, lamenting “battered hulls and broken hardships/leviathan and lonely” before visiting a 1000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh on the deck of a steamship on his way to New York in “Curses.
Josh Ritter's best asset is that he's unassuming. His kind of folk-pop could slide quietly into a VH1 morning video block and, if you weren't paying attention, the hook might catch you. But you'll miss all the good stuff -- the clever lines, the compelling stories, that lilt in his voice. Once you've caught up to what he's doing, once you hear that first crushing line, he can be pretty tough to ignore.
There are directors whose bread and butter is prestige pictures, the kind of films which inevitably draw acclaim from the wispy suggestion of depth, presenting ornate surfaces that are largely filled with air. Music supports the same style of artist (most often singer-songwriters, for whatever reason), who offer suggestions of creativity and depth without actually presenting them, showing off a twinkling, NPR-ready aesthetic that's mostly commendable for the way it deviously toys with familiarity. Josh Ritter's So Runs the World Away cements him in the swelled ranks of these types of artists, plying stiff-limbed songs that evoke a creaky, sepia antiqueness.
JOSH RITTER So Runs The World Away (Pytheas Recordings) Rating: For someone with the obvious brilliance of Josh Ritter, three years is a long time between albums. Sometime after the release of 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, something changed for the Idaho native. The songs that once came to him so apparently effortlessly, the passion for performing night after night, had suddenly left him.
Ritter’s sixth LP shows potential for greatness in time. Alex Tudor 2010 Six albums into his career, and with a novel on the way, Josh Ritter has become a feature on the landscape of American songwriting through quiet persistence. In a sense, So Runs the World Away might be the grand statement he’s been building towards, although you might not know it from the first listen.