Every week, I’ll share an album or two I’ve been listening to. Feel free to list your favorite recent releases in the comments below.
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This week is all about one of the best contemporary singer/songwriters at the top of his game. Josh Ritter’s new album, “The Beast in Its Tracks," is a whirlwind of bittersweet songs about lost love and uncertainty about what the future holds. If you’ve heard Ritter’s music before, you’ll know his style of songwriting is often cryptic, filled with historical references and whimsy from imagined characters and worlds. “The Beast in Its Tracks” is all about Ritter and his internal conflict during a painful divorce. Ritter posted a handwritten note to his fans that said, “[This album] began in heartbreak, but for me, it has come to stand for everything after.”
Also released this week, I’ve heard both the new albums from Caitlin Rose and Son Volt. Forthcoming for next week, we have releases from several legends: David Bowie and Eric Clapton both have new albums scheduled for release. Someone by the name of Bon Jovi also has a new album releasing.
Other notable releases this week:
Notable releases next week:
Thirty-six-year-old Josh Ritter has released his seventh studio album. This is his first release since 2010’s “So Runs the World Away.” Known for his unique literate/narrative lyrics and song structure, “The Beast in Its Tracks” is somewhat of a departure for Ritter. The album is pensive and culls material from his personal experience with divorce (from singer/songwriter Dawn Landes) and subsequent finding of a “new lover” while dealing, delicately, with the subject of grief.
What the critics think:
Josh Ritter is no stranger to mixed reviews from critics, and “The Best in Its Tracks” is no exception. Obvious comparisons to Bob Dylan have also cropped up. With this album, The Independent from the U.K. says this album is akin to Dylan’s "Blood on the Tracks." They say this album is “Ritter being Ritter, though there is little bitterness on show here. Instead, he sets his bruised but unbowed soul against a stark musical backing and rediscovers the power of keeping it simple. Beautiful.” And it is, indeed, a beautiful record. The Guardian points out that Ritter has had everything thrown at him since his last album in 2010: “In the three years since Josh Ritter released 'So Runs the World Away,' the singer-songwriter has divorced, published his first novel, fallen in love, had a run-in with death and become a father." According to the writer, this album “is a pause for reflection in a life lived at triple-speed ... it's a gentle meditation on what it is to be rejected, and to love where love has flown, to feel lonely yet feel warmth toward the world outside oneself.” The Boston Globe pays a strange compliment to the album, saying, “ It is hard to listen to—so honest, so raw that his pain nearly becomes your own.” Isn’t that the mark of a talented songwriter, the ability to relate pain and sorrow in a way that is universal? They go on to say: “Ritter has moved on, but his juxtaposition of his failed marriage with his newfound happiness with someone else is unflinching.” Pitchfork (which always seems to overrate albums I don’t enjoy and underrate albums that, in my opinion, deserve a little more accolade) gives the album a “good” 6.7 score, saying, "On the plus side, it allows Ritter a big-picture perspective: the past as a landscape he has traversed and can see more clearly from this peak. 'Beast' is contemplative and forgiving, a means of burying one relationship to commit to another, and Ritter nicely evokes the excitement and resignation of such a transition. On the other hand, distance is distance, and much of the album is too cool, too level-headed, too past tense.”
What I think:
Josh Ritter is one of the artists, like Dylan, who can somehow describe in a song exactly what it feels to wander through this experience we call life. Admittedly, I’ve been a fan since his 2000 release "The Golden Age of Radio." I’ve listened to the new album all week, and it’s amazing to follow the transition of the songs. To me, the songs seem almost split in half across the album: the first half dealing specifically with the breakup, the second half showing Ritter shaking off the divorce and finding himself again. In the early part of the album, songs like “Evil Eye” explore the physical toll a divorce can have on both parties involved. “A Certain Light” compares his new love to his old saying, “And she only looks like you in a certain kind of light, when she holds her head just right.” “Hopeful” is a song that speaks of the problem of unrequited affection: “How many times did you give all your love, just to find out it was so far from, far from enough? I followed her out into the street in the rain. And the whole world stopped spinning and just went up in flames. And she’s hopeful, hopeful for me.”
Ritter has the ability to cram a whole bunch of wisdom in a small amount of musical space. It’s the Ritter way. The standout track, in my opinion, is a song called “New Lover.” Ritter’s honesty is devastatingly effective: “I hope you got a lover now, hope you’ve got somebody who can give you what you need, like I couldn’t seem to do. But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy, too.”
The album ends with a couple of songs that sound almost like toasts of good riddance to the relationship: “Joy to You Baby” conjures images of a man on a balcony looking at the moon (a la "Fievel Goes West"): “Joy to you, baby, wherever you are tonight.” The song “Lights” ends the album: “On some distant moon, I lie on my back for a glimpse of blue ‘fore it fades to black; it used to be like this, now it’s not like that. I’ve got your light. I’ve got your light in my eyes.”
With Josh Ritter, we have a songwriter to rival the greats. "The Beast in Its Tracks" will probably not be the most critically acclaimed Ritter album. However, it’s certainly one of his most poignant and personal. A great writer knows that, in order to give your best, you have to write what you know. Unfortunately, a part of life is knowing the heartbreak of lost love and the painful emotions that represent that experience. It turns out that Josh Ritter is human, too, just like the rest of us. I highly recommend this album.