The Beast in its Tracks by Josh Ritter (Pytheas Recordings, 2013. 44 minutes)
Josh Ritter is an American singer-songwriter born in Moscow, Idaho. A graduate of Oberlin College, Ritter sang open-mic nights and worked odd jobs until he was discovered by Glen Hansard. Ritter has released 7 full-length albums and numerous EPs.
A Gig, Most Difficult
In my opinion, the hardest gig in show business is that of the singer-songwriter. Typically alone on stage without much accompaniment, the singer-songwriter can’t hide behind anything. When you have a band, the focus of the audience wanders from member to member. A backing band can bring energy to a mundane song; it can hide meaningless lyrics.
But when you are alone on stage, not only do you need top-notch songs but you also must be a storyteller. A singer-songwriter’s lyrics emerge front-and-center.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve attended a small concert where a solo artist isn’t strong enough to command the room. When it’s a voice and a guitar, 50 separate conversations can overwhelm a bare-bones set. I feel bad for these songwriters because it’s alienating to feel ignored. But thus is the plight of the singer-songwriter.
When I think of successful singer-songwriters, Josh Ritter vaults to the top of the list. His capacity to tell a story which not only emits raw emotion but also contains plot. Ritter’s stories bolster strongly written songs. He doesn’t need a backing band to hide his inadequacies.
With his latest, The Beast in its Tracks, Ritter continues his narrative style, with a particular emphasis on the motif of love lost.
In this album, Ritter follows a clear progression from despair, to rebound, to pure acceptance.
With the crepuscular tune, “Hopeful,” Ritter ponders life after the end of a relationship:
“Supposedly it was a wise, wise man / Who said it’s better to have loved and lost / Then never to have loved at all / Never to have loved / How many times is truth that you took to be true / Just truth falling apart at the same speed as you / Until it all falls away at a million degrees / And you’re just a few pieces of falling debris / And she’s hopeful, hopeful for me / Coming out of the dark clouds”
Eloquently stated, “Hopeful” sets the stage for introspection. Is a relationship worth it, if this is how you feel when it’s over?
Yet, The Beast in its Tracks offers a progression. This album is not a Dashboard Confessional retread. Ritter is moving forward—somewhat—“New Lover” showing some proof.
“I feel like a miser/ I feel low and mean / For accusing you of stealing what I offered for free / Still it baffles the belief sometimes what thieves we lovers be / I don’t know who you’re with these days / Might be with someone new / And if you are I hope he treats you like a lover ought to do / But whatever makes you happy it don’t really matter who / I got a new lover now / I hope you got a lover too”
Clearly, Ritter still holds on to some bitterness. But there’s hope on the horizon—a new lover emerges.
If there’s any doubt that Ritter moves away from wallowing in self-pity, the anthemic (for a singer-songwriter at least) “Joy to You Baby” resolves it.
“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”
In all of these songs, the narrative is strong; it is a response and a reclamation of life in the wake of a tattered relationship. As a singer-songwriter, Josh Ritter can grab a room with the stories he tells. The Beast in its Tracks illustrates a heartfelt story teller, capable of singing songs with only a guitar in the background, or powering through more instrumentation with his defined voice. Josh Ritter is well worth following.
Verdict: 4 out of 5