In 2006, Josh Ritter won male vocalist of the year at the Boston Music Awards. That very same year, acclaimed novelist Stephen King (writing music reviews for Entertainment Weekly at the time) lauded Ritter’s The Animal Years as “the best album of the year in a walk.” Ritter’s third record, Hello Starling, debuted at no. 2 on the Irish charts. However, I’ve never heard his music on the radio, and he receives fewer than eight hundred thousand monthly listeners on Spotify (compare this to someone like Harry Styles who has around forty million). Because of this, it isn’t very likely that Josh Ritter would be recommended to you by an algorithm if you weren’t already listening to American folk or Americana.
The Animal Years opens with ‘Girl in the War’. Songs like this, writes King, “do not leave the consciousness once they’re heard.” Though this album is a protest against the Iraq war, its instrumentation is representative of Ritter’s early and early-middle work: serene, with standard chords, a simple picking pattern, a small band, and limited electronic manipulation. But this beautifully simple guitar finds an immediate contrast in the intricacy of Ritter’s lyrics.
Peter said to Paul
“You know all those rules we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.”
The rest of the song continues with the religious allusions and conversational structure, Peter wallowing in his pain (the pain of having a girl at war), Paul advising him on how best to treat the situation (get angry, imagine the enemy: “Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire”). The music builds to the end of the song, as do the lyrics, which finally end with Peter’s final cry, the hauntingly beautiful:
I’ve got a girl in the war, Paul her eyes are like champagne.
They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you’ve got is rain.
But it’s not all deep, allusionary songs about pain, loss, and faith. Ritter doesn’t shy away from established tropes of songwriting, like songs about love sickness; he just writes them with the same intense, layered, lyrical ability with which he treats his other work. Here’s the opening of ‘Kathleen’:
All the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights.
They try to shine in through your curtains, you’re too close and too bright.
They try and they try, but everything that they do
Is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.
I’ll be the one to drive you back home, Kathleen.
This lyrical focus and fastidiousness feels revolutionary when applied to these more conventional topics. Take ‘Me and Jiggs’, which is in the style of a classic “hanging out with the fellas” country song, but written just as vividly as his other work.
Me and Jiggs staring at the ceiling, the stars above the radar range,
Songs from a station wagon laying foundations on the shadows of the passing planes.
I’m feeling good, at seven o’clock we’re gonna drive across the county line,
And find Saturday night like an orphan child that the good days left behind.
I cannot recommend an artist more highly. Listening to Josh Ritter makes not only for a good background activity, but also a deeply rewarding foreground activity in a way that modern music often fails to do. This is an artist who, with the depth and complexity of his writing, will ruin other artists’ lyrics for you. If you’re interested in hearing more (or any, if you read this without looking up the songs), I’d recommend listening to his albums The Animal Years and Hello Starling all the way through. They are his two best, in my book, and each song is good on its own and great in the context of the full work. Happy listening!