As a songwriter, it’s tough to step out from the shadow of Bob Dylan, no matter which genre you inhabit. If you make your living with literate folk music, however, your entire professional career is spent in Mr. Zimmerman’s penumbra. So when a folky singer-songwriter releases a “breakup album,” comparisons to Blood on the Tracks start flying before the record has even dropped. Perhaps Josh Ritter had this in mind when he titled his own breakup album The Beast In Its Tracks (2013); perhaps not. But Ritter is also that rare breed of songwriter with the chops to weather comparisons to Dylan and look pretty darn good out the other side.
Dylan famously ditched the idea of playing with a back-up band on Blood on the Tracks, preferring to strip down the arrangements and hire studio musicians to fill in the sonic landscape when necessary. The resultant leanness of sound served him well in working through the turmoil of his disintegrating marriage. Ritter’s approach to The Beast In Its Tracks is much the same. Compared to the expansiveness of The Historical Conquests of… or So Runs the World Away, this is a spare record for Ritter, one that could easily be performed with a voice and a single guitar with minimal alterations to most arrangements. This economy of sound is reflected in the lyrics as well, which are more direct and less literary than Ritter’s previous efforts.
As straightforward as the songs may be, the emotions he addresses with them certainly aren’t simple. The major difference between Dylan’s and Ritter’s breakup records is that, whereas Blood on the Tracks was written and released in the thick of Dylan’s separation, The Beast In Its Tracks comes more than two years after Ritter’s divorce from fellow musician Dawn Landes. By his own admission, the songs that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the divorce were “unfocused, full of hatred and self-pity.” Many months later, there’s still pain in Ritter’s heart, as when he observes in two separate songs that his new partner, author Haley Tanner, only looks like his old one “when she’s in a certain light,” or when he sets his dark dreams to incongruously cheery music on “Nightmares.”
But time heals all wounds, they say; and with two-plus years of distance, The Beast In Its Tracks traces a narrative arc from despair into cautious hope, as exemplified by its three key tracks (which also, coincidentally or not, sport the record’s richest arrangements). Despite its title, “Hopeful” chronicles Ritter’s spiral into depression: “How many times is truth that you take to be true/Just truth falling apart at the same speed as you?” The words cascade out of his mouth on the verses, as if he’s eager to have done with the painful details so that he can get to the chorus. A few tracks later, “New Lover” finds Ritter rebuilding his fragile psyche with a supportive new partner. But his wounds still smart:
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.
From here, though, the tone of the record picks up, tending toward gentle, ingenuous love songs like “Bonfire” and “In Your Arms Again,” until we reach the penultimate track, “Joy to You Baby.” Here’s where Ritter finally seems to make peace with his past:
There is pain in whatever
We stumble upon
If I’d never have met you
You couldn’t have gone
But then I’d never have met you
And we couldn’t have been
I guess it all adds up
To joy in the end
It’s a good encapsulation of The Beast In Its Tracks as a whole. The spare simplicity of Ritter’s songwriting and performances testify to the emotional forest fire that has ravaged his interior geography these past couple of years. But new saplings spring forth from the ashes of every fire. With this burnt-but-beautiful effort, Josh Ritter has crafted a breakup album that might well serve as a new benchmark for the genre; after all, it’s rather unfair to measure everybody against Bob Dylan.
- Mayer’s Picks: Best Albums of 2013 (twangville.com)
- Reflections on Comparisons (goldenageoftheradio.wordpress.com)
- Josh Ritter and Tift Merritt – review (theguardian.com)
- Top 10 Songs of 2013: #6 – “New Lover” by Josh Ritter (musiccourtblog.com)
- A Year in Music  (33-11) (twotothreesounds.wordpress.com)
- Music News | Josh Ritter new video ‘Hopeful’ (thejournalist.ie)
- Mixed Tape Monday (ghostsareintheattic.wordpress.com)
- Josh Ritter To Headline Wilshire Ebell Theatre (thescenestar.typepad.com)
- The best 50 albums of 2013, according to andrewdsweeney: 21 to 30 (andrewdsweeney.wordpress.com)