Last year Josh Ritter was Stephen King’s favorite musician. If that’s not impressive enough, the Republic of Ireland has been all over him since he opened for The Frames in 2002, and his album Hello Starling was No. 2 on its charts in 2003.
Sadly, for many of us here in the United States, Josh Ritter is still struggling to climb out of the brimming vat of crooning folk-rock, finger-picking songwriters and establish himself as a recognizable voice on our iPod Shuffles.
But things are beginning to change for the 29-year-old musician from Idaho. His latest album, Animal Years, has earned him some well-deserved spotlight on NPR and the David Letterman Show, and it’s been heralded as his breakthrough album. However, “breakthrough” isn’t necessarily the most accurate description for what Ritter has done on this album, but rather what this album has done for Ritter’s career in the United States. Technically and stylistically, very little has changed. Critics can still make the same broad generalizations about Ritter’s similarities to Dylan, and the disparaging reviewer still has plenty of room to box Ritter’s simplicity into the routinely prescribed fork-norms.
But there’s something inexorably endearing about a musician who doesn’t resort to lofty, uninterpretable metaphors and disjointed abstractions in an attempt to embark on originality. Ritter isn’t afraid of tradition, and this almost-novel attribute allows his storytelling lyrics to thrive in their own historical and literary density. What’s being considered “breakthrough” material on Animal Years is merely the refined and poised version of the type of stunning material we saw on his earlier, self-released albums.
A graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in American history, specifically American folk-music (which he switched to after initially pursuing neuroscience), Ritter didn’t start making music until he was 18. After four years of studying folk music it’s no surprise that Ritter’s music is deeply rooted in an Americana ardor, but this doesn’t hinder his reflection on current social and political issues. And yes, a strain of activism does round out the singer-songwriter mold that he dwells in, but with one listen of the 10-minute ballad “Thin Blue Frame,” you can see that this man has used his template in the best of ways: “Spirals and capitals like the twist of a script / streets named for heroes that could almost exist / The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem / to float like the smoke from a lithium dream / cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares / the young women walking in the portals of prayer.”
Ritter will be playing tomorrow at the Ark – making it possible for you to decide whether or not Stephen King has good music taste.
Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
At The Ark