Music Reviews
The Beast in its Tracks

Josh Ritter The Beast in its Tracks

(Pytheas) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Josh Ritter is a man of many faces. Now, it wouldn’t be as obvious without a lyric sheet in hand – in a compositional sense, the Idaho singer-songwriter has adroitly maintained a low profile as a barebones folk artist throughout his decade-long career. But that’s only what we hear in the foreground. Ritter has always emphasized the balance of telling stories with numerous factoids of American history – he’s given us a chilling illustration about the dangers of coal mining, sailed the frozen north in search of a New World, and cunningly protested against the anti-abolitionist bushwhacking raids that caused the Lawrence Massacre. And through all this, he’s fallen in and out of love time and time again. Who knows whatever happened to that girl with the jonquil dress, the one that got him off his Grand Ole Opry binge.

In a sense, Ritter has always tackled the concept of love with that of an outsiders’ view. He’s dressed up the part of a lover in numerous instances, and many times with a downhearted underpinning, but they’ve never attained that vital spark of poignancy that relates to human life on a more personal level. Except that reality struck when he suffered a heart-wrenching divorce with singer-songwriter Dawn Landes. Naturally, it lead to the making of The Beast on its Tracks, which seems fated to become a de facto retelling of his break-up period. But instead of framing the tumultuous hardships such an experience entails, Beasts presents him in a rejuvenated state, that cleansing effect that only can be measured with the passing of time.

In letting go, Ritter was fortunate enough to find a love that “told me she loved me enough times that I started to believe her”. That quote captures a stark honesty – even when life brings an unexpected chance to start anew, there’s always that creeping thought of an unforgettable past that will never perish. The first songs in Beasts show Ritter at his most fearful - Third Arm chronicles what may have been the promise of a new relationship, in which he waltzes with a woman who reminds him of her. The fingerpicking patterns of A Certain Light are rosy and almost devoid of despondency – a joyful (or relieved) Ritter comes to grips with his grief, with the thoughts of his ex-wife beginning to diminish in his memory and intensity. But he knows that he has to go through the lows to get to the highs, like in the prickly, Beatles-recalling Hopeful, in which a weary Ritter suffers a moment of weakness by venting out with a fuming disposition, but comes back to terms because he knows his girlfriend is hopeful for me.

Ritter has always had a good handle on writing songs that are spare but rich, stripped to its bare essence. This time around, his musings are openly candid and scarcely metaphorical, a necessary breather from all the stuffy, bookish references spread across his last two efforts.  The message and the songs counterpart each other based on Ritter’s diary approach – I’m on my way to find my own heart’s ease, he calmly meditates, seeking the graceful classicism of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for inspiration. A run through Beasts provides little in the way of variation, but when there is the results are dazzling. Take the strummy Bonfire, which recounts the naiveté of a blossoming love, rendered in the sing/speak vocal phrasing of Paul Simon while a languishing slide guitar conveys an ebullient sense of atmosphere. Perhaps the most complex out of the bunch is Beasts centerpiece New Love, in which a straightforward, shimmying guitar chugs alongside a celestial backdrop that just brims with enchantment; it’s also one of Ritter’s most vindictive (or human?) moments on record, and he internally copes with passive-aggression, But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true/I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too.

When it comes to matters of the heart, Beasts can be described as a quietly evocative meditation that illustrates the confusion that may arise between bidding farewell and welcoming a new commitment. It’s unfortunate that the album’s grand declaration is found in the rather pedestrian Joy to the World, with a renewed Ritter finally closing that chapter in his life with a genuinely amiable constitution: If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone/But then I wouldn’t have met you, we could have been/I guess it all adds up, to joy in the end. But it couldn’t have ended any other way, and the time he took to pacify his agony only demonstrates a readiness to exist, and perform these songs, in the present tense. So many break-up albums focus on the destructive, biased details, the “what if” and the “what could have been”. For once, there’s one that doesn’t make you choose sides, and understands that both parties deserve a new chance to start all over.