Josh Ritter: “So Runs the World Away”

Josh Ritter’s last album was called Historical Conquests, but maybe he should have saved the title for its follow-up. On the lavishly-titled So Runs the World Away, Ritter does indeed sound a like a conqueror– a world traveler and explorer who’s returned home with stories of all he’s done and seen. The portrait of the mighty ship on the front cover is instructive: This album is a travelogue, a report taken from a long, sometimes harrowing journey into a new world.

Exploration is a recurring theme here, not just in the lyrics but in the music. Historical Conquests was a loose, ramshackle album that filtered dusty Americana through Ritter’s pure pop sensibilities; at times it felt almost like an inspired jukebox, spinning one brilliant idea after another. That same mix of wide-eyed curiosity and exploratory instincts are present here as well, but this time Ritter sounds more confident in his own inspiration and craft, less like he’s riding a glorious wave of spontaneity and more like he’s etching out his own masterpiece, a work that’s as bold and as visionary as any album he’s made. And if Historical Conquests was loose and rough around the edged, Runs the World is grand, elegant– imagine the volatile chemistry of the last album crossed with the stately arrangements of The Animal Years and you’re on the right track.

The album was recorded, once again, with producer Sam Kassirer, as well as the same band Ritter made Historical Conquests and has since been touring the world with; the album is, yes, and exploration of this increasingly fruitful partnership, Ritter’s escalating confidence as a recording artist feeding off of Kassirer’s own increased intuition. Together, they take Ritter’s sound to places it’s never been before, to majestic highs and quiet valleys. “Southern Pacifica” is a lush pop song, its vibe-adorned passages sounding positively ornate, and certainly more meticulous than anything from the last album, but the sound is hardly overwrought– Ritter and Kassirer are at once giddy with ideas and confident in their own execution, making the song into a genuinely grand anthem. And would you believe that “Rattling Locks”– with its sour, jazzy arrangement and clattering, Bone Machine percussion– could almost pass for a Tom Waits track? Or that “The Remnant” expands on the barbed-wire guitar sound of “Mind’s Eye,” as gritty and raucous as anything from the last record?

That Ritter finds solidarity with fellow explorers is a given, but what’s astonishing is how he’s taken previously-blazed trails and wound up somewhere completely different. His fascination with American folk music burns as passionately as ever, and in some ways he’s as audacious here as he’s ever been, not just in how the jovial “Lark” sounds like it could be a long lost Paul Simon classic, but also in how he rewrites the old murder ballad “Delia”– written by Blind Willie McTell and performed by everyone from Dylan to Cash– as “Folk Bloodbath.” It’s a sort of revisionist Western in the vein of Unforgiven, the genre’s proud history of violence here called into question.

It’s not the album’s only song that asks big questions. Ritter’s explorations have seemingly taken him to the edge of the world and back, and he returns fueled by inspiration drawn from travelers, navigators, and scientists– but also daunted by what he’s found lurking at the frontiers of human experience. The opening anthem “Change of Time” sets the tone for the work that follows with its twin themes of love and death– and of the cold, terrifying chasm that lies between them. The next song, “The Curse,” is a piano waltz, a story song in the same league as “The Temptation of Adam” from the last album; it tells the story of a Victorian archaeologist who falls in love with an unearthed mummy. What’s the curse, then? Perhaps it’s mortality itself, or perhaps it’s the fact that the two ever feel in love in the first place, only to be torn asunder by the ravages of time.

Ritter’s resentment grows into a full-fledged showdown with the Almighty; a divine, discontented dialogue flows through the album like a bitter undercurrent. “Rattling Locks,” the album’s most puzzling and provocative number, finds the argument reaching its boiling point, our singer choosing an eternity in Hell over a life of unanswered questions. But it’s clear– at least to this listener– that these songs are not empty provocation; Ritter borrows his own spirit of theological inquiry from the explorers and scientists he writes about, and his angry fist-shaking at God seems to come from a real desire for knowledge and truth.

What truth he finds is, perhaps, a matter left for Ritter and the Deity to sort out. I will say, though, that the album’s epic centerpiece, “Another New World,” is a perfect summation of the album’s themes, drawing together its ideas of love and death, exploration and violence, frontiers both literal and metaphysical. I won’t spoil the song’s finale for anyone, but suffice to say that, if Ritter doesn’t quite find peace of resolution, he does sound open to the idea that they could be out there. He’s not making any final judgments about anything just yet: After all, he’s still exploring.

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