The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by John Metzger
Sun December 2, 2007, 08:50 AM CST
One must excuse the pomposity that is inherent to the title of Josh Ritterís latest outing The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. The Idaho-born songwriter just canít seem to help himself. Right from the start, he made it clear that he held larger-than-life ambitions. At the same time, his fanatical followers relentlessly overemphasized his strengths and immediately forgave his weaknesses. Lesser artists would have embarked upon an ego trip, spiraling further and further inside themselves, destined never to consummate the raw talent that was at their disposal. Ritter, on the other hand, slowly but surely has refined his approach. Over the course of his preceding four albums, he has moved closer to deserving the idolization he so rapidly received. Although he still hasnít resolved all of the issues that are at stake, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter finds him taking another step toward fulfilling his promise.
Expanding upon the musical and thematic constructs of The Animal Years, Ritter focuses his attention on exploring the intricacies of love during wartime, and he intertwines the storylines until they endlessly revolve around each other. Throughout the loosely knit conceptual work, he struggles to take solace in a world that is hellbent on its own self-destruction. Although Ritter wants to find true love, he also canít seem to make the right connection as he yearns for something that isnít meant to last while watching the apocalypse unfold around him. He is at his boldest on The Temptation of Adam, during which he convincingly makes a plea for turning a dalliance in a missile silo into something more.
Like Bob Dylan, Ritter effortlessly threads literary and biblical references through his lyrics, but try as he might, he still isnít playing in quite the same league. His ruminations arenít nearly as cryptically dimensional, nor are they as universal. The words to Dylanís songs, whether read or sung, open into a world of maze-like passageways, and whenever he appears to be addressing a specific topic or trying to prove a particular point, the true meaning of his work remains elusive, slipping away with each clever turn-of-phrase he delivers.
Such is not the case with Ritter, though this is not meant to take anything away from what he has accomplished. Although a similarity certainly exists between the approaches of Ritter, Dylan, and, for that matter, Leonard Cohen, continuing to dwell upon the issue ó as many critics and fans seem want to do ó is actually a detrimental force against him. He is not the next Bob Dylan any more than Bruce Springsteen or Donovan was. Ritter merely is emulating his heroes as he further establishes his own voice, his own phrasing, and his own way of telling a story. Regardless, his lyrics, which continue to read like well-crafted poetry, are undeniably his greatest strength.
Therefore, the place where Ritter has faltered the most is with his music. His early, more folk-oriented outings had a tendency to feel a little flat. Always melodically intact, they also were pleasantly innocuous, never quite becoming as gripping as they needed to be. More recently, he has begun to move beyond his roots by embarking upon a more thorough exploration of the realms of pop and rock. While his forays havenít entirely been successful, his new direction has made for more interesting outings.
Nevertheless, for as lush as The Animal Years was, it didnít consistently have quite the urgency that it needed. In making The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, however, he broadened his palette and punched up his sound considerably by surveying the indie rock worlds inhabited by Spoon, Bright Eyes, and Wilco. The result is an effort that is immediately ingratiating and engaging, though there still is something missing. While his lyrics and melodies are as solid as theyíve ever been, Ritter continues to struggle with how best to present them. Strangely, the quieter, simpler refrains are what hold the greatest resonance. Regardless, Ritterís restless sonic tinkering is beginning to bear fruit, and even when he stumbles, the ride is rather glorious. Indisputably, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is the prelude to something bigger. Ĺ
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box