First Impressions: “So Runs the World Away”

Josh Ritter’s last album was called The Historical Conquests; on his new one, he does indeed sound like a world conqueror returned home. He’s travelled far and abroad. He’s seen a lot, and he’s returned with the confidence and the skills to make what sounds like the album he’s always wanted to make– and with an even deeper, more nagging set of questions about God, man, and the world around us.

So Runs the World Away is the culmination of all his travels. It’s an album that’s as majestic as the last one was ragged, neatly folding the ramshackle rock experiments of Historical Conquests into the more elegant, layered sound of The Animal Years. It’s an album that’s both grander and more intimate than any he’s yet made, a rugged landscape of glorious peaks and quiet valleys. And it’s his most assured work yet as a songwriter, an album inspired by– and drawing heavily from– imagery of scientists and explorers, images that mirror Ritter’s own spirit of inquiry: His pointed questions for the Divine are carried over from “Thin Blue Flame,” only here they permeate nearly every song on the album.

The album doesn’t come out until May 4th (though you can get a sneak peak on April 17– Record Store Day– when the vinyl edition of the album is made available at select indie stores), but I’ve been listening to it so much that I just had to tease it. So consider yourself teased: It’s a knockout record, in many ways Ritter’s finest yet. And it boasts a number of songs that are immediately Ritter classics:

You’ve probably heard “Change of Time” already, but as the album opener, it’s even more effective, an incredible anthem that pulls back the curtains on the album’s epic sweep. What you may not have heard is the song that follows it, “The Curse,” both a wistful piano waltz and a classic Ritter story-song in the vein of “The Temptation of Adam.” This one’s about a mummy, and the 19th century archaeologist who loves him– and yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

“Southern Pacifica” is another majestic anthem, with ornate flourishes of vibes that show just how confident Ritter has become as a record-maker, and how intuitive Sam Kassirer is as his producer.

Would you believe that “Rattling Locks,” with its bone-yard production, sour jazz overtones, and cantankerous guitars sounds like a lost gem from Tom Waits’ Bone Machine? That “Lantern” is his most aggressive and heart-pumping love song? That “The Remnant” expands on the barbed-wire guitar sound of “Mind’s Eye?” That “Another New World” is a true epic, one that ties together the record’s themes of literal and spiritual frontiers and exploration?

It’s a superb album from top to bottom. Check back for my review a little closer to release time.

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