After Josh Ritter’s last couple releases, I was beginning to wonder if his music would ever connect with me again like it had in the old days. His finest albums, 2006’s The Animal Years and 2007’s The Historical Conquests of... were both loaded with terrific melodies, astounding lyrical content, and emulations of musical influences that sit directly in my wheelhouse, from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen. 2010’s slow-burning return, titled So Runs the World Away, largely sought refuge in a sunnier folk-pop vein, a la Paul Simon, but despite a few stellar stand-outs, fell short. And last year’s EP, Bringing in the Darlings, failed to connect with me on any level.
But heartbreak has a way of bringing about creative rebirth. It did for Dylan in 1975, when his break-up album masterpiece Blood on the Tracks reignited a decade that otherwise failed to reach the heights of its creator’s heyday; it did it for Springsteen, who wrote what was arguably his most unique, introspective, and confessional set of songs with 1987’s Tunnel of Love, just before his marriage imploded; and it has done the same for countless artists across the landscape of music history, from Italian opera to classic rock ‘n’ roll to modern emo. In that case, the recently-divorced Josh Ritter is hardly unique, but the fact doesn’t make his latest album, The Beast in Its Tracks, any less striking. In fact, Beast is Ritter’s most engaging and consistent record since The Animal Years...and probably his best as well.
Ritter has never lacked for great lyrical content. His signature song, 2006’s “Thin Blue Flame,” thrived on nine-and-a-half minutes of illusion-heavy verses, while the finest songs on So Runs the World Away were sprawling narrative epics. The songwriter’s propensity for dense poetic imagery and well-fashioned turns of phrase are very much intact here, but they’re also accompanied by more welcoming musical textures and stronger melodies than we’ve heard from Ritter in quite awhile. Witness the tremulous explosion of strings and acoustic guitars that opens the rollicking and biting “New Lover” (“But if you’re sad and you’re lonesome, and you got nobody true/I’d be lyin’ if I said that didn’t make me happy too,” Ritter croons over the song’s final moments) or the classic folk harmonies that give “In Your Arms Awhile” its heaven-bound grace. Meanwhile, it’s the enveloping mix of organic instrumentation and ambient sonic textures that lend more innocuous album tracks, such as the intimate “Nightmares” or the country-whine of “Bonfires,” a sense of cohesion with the rest of the record.
But The Beast in Its Tracks wouldn’t be a Josh Ritter album without at least a few home-runs, and luckily, the hits here are plentiful. Early-album triumph “Hopeful” is Ritter’s “Tangled up in Blue,” a winding relationship narrative that relates the stab of watching the person you love pack up and walk out the door better than almost any I’ve ever heard. “The sunlight corroded and the days started to fail/The rocks in the road sharpened shadows to nails,” Ritter sings, his very world turning against him as life spirals out of control. The aforementioned “In Your Arms Awhile” takes heartbreak to near-anthemic heights, while the chiming first single, “Joy to You Baby,” is the record’s most immediate stand-out. The redemptive penultimate number, “Joy to You Baby” is a flawless freeway slow-burn, a thoughtful evening song with bittersweet flickers of forgiveness floating through its glorious strains. “There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon/If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone,” Ritter notes. “But then I couldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been/I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.” Simple. Universal. Beautiful.
So many of my favorite musical works are break-up albums: there’s something about an artist baring their soul on record, tearing down the walls and letting their fans see them bleed and break, that has always felt so noble and romantic to me. I suppose it’s the relatability factor, or maybe the fact that I’ve always been partial to emotionally charged songwriting, but there’s a reason that Blood on the Tracks or Tunnel of Love or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Butch Walker’s Letters land so high on my all-time favorite albums list. The Beast in Its Tracks offers the same kind of catharsis, and just like each of those albums, Ritter finds a silver lining in these songs. This is no pity party; in addition to his divorce, Ritter’s tumultuous past three years have seen his second marriage and the birth of his child. So when light breaks through the clouds—something that happens, appropriately, on the lush, acoustic number, “A Certain Light,” and the organ-drenched, slowdance closer, “Lights”—the results are both comforting and viscerally satisfying. And Ritter, one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, guides the whole thing with a steady hand, giving us love, hate, loss, rebirth, resentment, redemption, forgiveness, and nostalgia, and encapsulating it all into 43 minutes and 28 seconds of smooth folk bliss. 2013’s bar has just been raised.