In the world of songwriting, Josh Ritter is a giant among men. Over the last decade he’s released six full-lengths, toured tirelessly and written a novel. He’s played with popular acts like The Swell Season and Ray LaMontagne, as well as headlining his own tours with people like Langhorne Slim and Chicago’s own Joe Pug as openers.
On his most recent release, So Runs the World Away, Josh takes his greatest leap forward in storytelling. The album plays out with a cinematic quality that John Williams would be proud of. It’s a collection of musings on life, dreams half-forgotten and love.
In March of 2009, Kari and I went with a couple of friends of ours, Tyler and Jess, to Des Moines to see Josh Ritter play at Vaudeville Mews. We were right up front, and the show was great. Toward the end of the show, he played a song that elevated him to the highest of levels in my mind. I looked it up as soon as I got home so I could check out the lyrics, and I watched the video that we had taken a couple times. I’ve probably watched it 50 or so times since then.
The song was “The Curse,” and it’s the third track on So Runs the World Away. It’s about a mummy, discovered by a female archaeologist and brought back to the States on a “beautiful boat.” The timing of the track is done in 3/3 time, so technically it’s a waltz. I think it’s the best written song in at least a decade. Maybe longer. Take a look at some of the words used to tell this tale:
He holds back a sigh
As she touches his arm
She dusts off the bed where til now he’s been sleeping
Under miles of stone
The dry fig of his heart
Under scarab and bone
Starts back to its beating
The vivid imagery that Josh paints with his words is completely mesmerizing. The music that backs up this story is almost carnival-like. If you close your eyes, you can see everything in the song like it’s right in front of you. It’s lush and sad and everything you could ask for in one song.
On another visually enchanting song, Josh gives us the greatest piece of music about shipwreck since Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” “Another New World” is about an explorer determined to map every part of the Earth. He and his crew set off to discover what’s at the top of the globe:
After all that I’d found in my travels around
the world was there anything left?
“Gentlemen”, I said, “I’ve studied the maps”
“And if what I’m thinking is right”
“There’s another new world at the top of the world”
“For whoever can break through the ice”
When I mentioned at the beginning that the album was partly about love, I was talking about the love between a man and his ship. In this song, the character Ritter sings about loves nothing more that his beautiful Annabelle Lee. They’ve been together so long that, when they get stuck in the ice and he has to be rescued, he considers his life over without his boat. It’s definitely a different kind of love story, but a good one.
So Runs the World Away is chock full of good songs. At least five of them I consider great songs (“The Curse,” “Rattling Locks,” “Lantern,” “Change of Time,” “Another New World”). Not that I’m surprised.
Over the course of his career, Josh Ritter has given us some of the best songs of the modern era. Everything from “Kathleen” and “The Temptation of Adam” to “Monster Ballads” and “Wolves,” should be in the top 100 songs of the ’00s. Now he’s staking his claim on the new decade with an album I can only assume will be right there with the best of the ’10s.
- Josh Ritter hails from Moscow, Idaho. His group, The Royal City Band, is: Zack Hickman (bass,guitar, tuba, strings), Sam Kissirer (piano, keyboard, organ, accordian), Austin Nevins (guitar, lap steel, baritone) and Liam Hurley (drums, percussion).
- So Runs the World Away is available on Josh Ritter’s website for $13 (CD) or $18 (vinyl). You can also get the mp3s from iTunes for $9.99.
- Josh and his band will play in Madison, Wisconsin at Majestic Theatre on Saturday, November 13. Tickets are $18-$35.
“The Curse” official music video