The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
_If Godâ€™s up there/Heâ€™s in a cold dark room/The heavenly host with just the cold dark noise/He bent down and made the world in seven days/And ever since Heâ€™s been walking away/Mixing with nitrogen and lonely holes/Where neither raindrops or seraphim go._
Josh Ritter is an artist whose references to Christianity and religion are glimpsed amid a firestorm of imagery and a brilliant, feverish sort of confusion. And anyone who can write lyrics like the above, (from “Thin Blue Flame”) is at least slightly amazing. Ritter has been endlessly compared Dylan, Cash, and McCartney, but on _The Historical Conquests_ he proves the inescapable comparisons to all be a rather pointless affair. Ritter, like Sufjan Stevens, is an artist who consistently sounds original and inspired; he renders comparisons virtually meaningless because his music, no matter which decade it seems to be from, is so invigorating.
The first song on _Conquests_, “To the Dogs or Whoever” made me unwarrantedly happy as I listened to its rapid-fire, catchy lyrics which have something to do with Joan of Arc, Casey Jones, Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane, and some other people who just may be calling out to Ritter in his dreams. Itâ€™s impressive music and, like a lot of what follows, is just plain good fun in a way that few artists are uninhibited enough to produce. And this from someone whose favorite songs are sad ones about obscure Chicago holidays and mothers who dye their hair.
Here, Ritter bathes his intelligent songwriting in some pretty big-sounding music, whereas on previous releases he employed his band on the occasional track like â€œWolves.â€ And itâ€™s a very wise shift: Ritterâ€™s previous results were nothing near as impressive as the fully rounded songs found on this record. The albumâ€™s second track, “Mindâ€™s Eye” hooked me from the very first electric guitar strum. If Spoonâ€™s “I Turn the Camera On” (which has been used heavily in movies and advertising) is even the least bit catchy then “Mindâ€™s Eye” runs the risk of blowing your mind, and as one reviewer noted, lends itself to incredibly obsessive listening. The same goes for â€œRight Moves,â€ a song simply unmatched in melodic wallop.
As good as the first three are, the album canâ€™t quite keep up the high standard the opening trio sets. “Temptation of Adam” is an odd and less likable tale of two lovers living in a missile silo during what we presume is a nuclear war. “Open Doors” is more concrete and much more interesting, as it sets up the traditional, acoustic driven songs that will drive much of the albumâ€™s second half, and contains a crucial, rambling rhythm section which runs seamlessly through the entire song.
“Rumors” sees Ritter returning to the mood in which his conquest set out, with him singing “My orchestra is gigantic/This thing could sink the Titanic/And the string sectionâ€™s screaming like horses in a barn burning up” as an explosion of horns greets the end of every line. This is isnâ€™t the music that anyone thought Ritter would be making based on 2006′s _The Animal Years_. It is big music, as reckless and noisy as its subject (who canâ€™t forget someone “because the musicâ€™s never loud enough.”)
Even after that, Ritter knows better than to just leave us with just a good record.”Still Beating” is the lovely tale of a man who can barely manage to get through life, but is able to hang on, and “Empty Heart” is a similarly, earthy, and unassuming heart-warmer. The first three songs are exercises in instrumentation and writing music thatâ€™s unerringly catchy. The later ones go for the low-key, playing on the emotion of Ritterâ€™s voice and the unassuming power of simplicity. The first three songs have smatterings of unearthly noise, while “Still Beating,” and “Empty Heart” have a undercurrent of earthy, familiar sounds and traditional instrumentation and strings.
In the end, _Conquests_ is the excellent, secure work of an esteemed artist whoâ€™s known for his serious subjects, and quirky, half-historical tales. Ritter takes that idea and sets it against a huge backdrop: songs that are rare for actually requiringâ€”and being immensely enhanced byâ€”a storm of production values and instrumentation on songs both loud and soft. This is clearly a new direction for Ritter, but itâ€™s also a wonderfully fleshed out approach to his unique songwriting. The result is songs created on a scale that eclipses his previous work, even if it lacks the piercing depth of “Thin Blue Flame.” If _The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter_ isnâ€™t engaging enough for you, then not a single record this year will be.
*Timothy Zila* is a critic for The CCM Patrol.
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