by Weston Cutter
Josh Ritter’s The Beast in its Tracks hits tomorrow, though it’s been streaming for the last week through NPR’s First Listen, and if you haven’t already, you need to put this work in your brain rapidly, either download it or stream it or steal it, whatever. Here’s the bold claim I’ll try to support with the rest of this: Ritter’s Beast 1) is redemption for the over-the-top excess of his book and his last album (So Runs the World Away) and 2) the most steeped-in-humility album ever made, and 3) we need, all of us, more steeped-in-humility art.
So: if you’ve been tracking Ritter (and you should be), you’ve been watching/listening as he has, for the last decade+, released album after album that’s showed him stretching his powers. I tuned in as of Golden Age of Radio, which has more confidence than just about any quiet lone-dude singer/songwriter folks affairs I can think of. What’s startling about Ritter, though, was how quickly he zipped into his next realm: he built and built on his sound and released The Animal Years, which was large but not bursting, and then, in ’07, he released The Historical Conquests, which was everything: large, bursting, overwhelming in the best way. Hearing that album for the first time will remain one of my all-time listener highlights—if you’ve yet to experience the thing, I’m infinitely jealous. Here’s what I mean by overwhelming and bursting and large—here’s the opening track, “To the Dogs or Whoever”:
I don’t want to geek too blissfully out on that one (for instance, noting the crazy lyric genius that rams Grateful Dead and Dylan lyrics together like siblings, or that just fucking sick chorus balancing longing with danger, someone calling in the dark), but let’s just acknowledge that that track has to be included in any discussion of top-10 tracks from the ’00s, and certainly among the very best track-one-side-one tracks ever. The album was fucking titanic and glorious—everything about it was big-shouldered + glad; it’s one of those very rare albums which requires no track skipping or cherry picking. It’s rambunctions, big-spirited, playful, aware of risks, etc. It’s one of those this-might-be-perfect listening experiences. The album felt, in that best way, almost like a debut novel from some crazed madcapper: there was elbow room to it, and there was jaunty joy, and there was infinite joy—just look at that dude in the video up there.
And then came So Runs the World Away. Released in ’09, it felt very much like JR’s grown up album: he got married, he was settling down, etc. Maybe that’s an overread, but go listen to the thing: it sure feels that way. It feels…stuffed. Turgid. Gone was the lithe agility that made him such fun: now there were big orchestral pieces—gorgeous, certainly, but almost moribound, funereal. Check it (and I believe this is the most gorgeous track on the album, “Change of Time”):
So there was that. I’ll admit to some trepidation. He also at this time wrote Bright’s Passage, his debut novel, which was (I think) pretty much perfectly reviewed by Stephen King here. I should also here cop to the fact that I was engaging in some similar lifechanges as Ritter right as he was (he’s a few years older than I, but we got married like months apart, and I published a book around when he did, and etc. etc. etc.). I bring this up just to say that I cared a whole shitload about Ritter’s personal artistic shit more than I have any right to, simply because I (like any young whatever) looked at his life/accomplishments and thought: okay man, trailblaze this next section for us. I don’t imagine I’m remotely alone.
But then what happened though is that Ritter and his wife divorced, and then I honestly sort of let go of him. I listened to his stuff endlessly, but I figured maybe he’d just missed an exit he shouldn’t have. I hoped I’d hear more, but didn’t think much, didn’t expect much. So then imagine the joy this fall when, months apart from my own daughter’s birth, there was this news that he had a kid, with this new love, and there’d be a new album in March—The Beast in its Tracks. I was hugely excited. And, thankfully, my enthusiasm was totally, 100% warranted.
Look, I’ve already taken way, way too much license with shaping Ritter’s bio and forcing a narrative onto it. Maybe I’m 100% wrong and he loves So Runs the World Away (one of the best things Westerberg always does is note that there are fans of the last two Replacement records, and that maybe they’ll end up being right), and it’ll in time be recognized as his greatest album. I don’t think so, though, and I think Beast is strong evidence that the best is yet to come with him.
Because Beast is an infinitely smaller—in scope and sound and imagination—record than So Runs, and I’ll here claim its better for its size. Look, Ritter could’ve gone two directions after Historical Conquest, right? Sure, there were infinite options, but he could’ve gone, basically, larger or smaller. He chose larger. Beast feels like the smaller album that, who knows, maybe he couldn’t have made then, given the size of his life (I know getting married and feeling like I’d arrived into adulthood made for some larger notions as well, made me think I needed to Get Larger about everything [I don't know if that makes any sense; if you make stuff, you probably already understand; in my own case, after marrying—after finally having instead of longing—I found myself wrestling with some large, large ideas—how to live a good life, the point of experience, religion, etc.—and I ended up sort of believing the more fun, loosey-goosey rock+roll playfullness of my unbound years was supposed to be laid to rest at the altar of this awesome togetherness I'd for so long wanted]).
I can’t support any of these claims, of course: this is just what Beast sounds like to a guy who’s heard most of what Ritter’s done, and a guy who for real was crying tears of joy on seeing him at the Metro in Chicago in ’09 (the infectious energy of his liveset is enough to stun you like a course of heavy pharmaceuticals). Ritter’s Beast (which is I think unwisely being compared to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, simply for the fact that they’re both divorce albums) is small and is reflective in ways I don’t hear Ritter’s other stuff having been: Beast feels almost like an emotional economist running tabulations on the life that led to this moment. “I’m just happy for the first time in a long time” he sings at the close of “A Certain Light,” and it’s a starkly bland line, but (I think) riveting for it: just happy. Think of the difficulty of that, of just being happy, of just being—and remember that however Ritter lives, he’s been building crazed spectacles of narrative and songsmithery; none of that old stuff’s about anything as banal and mundane and just being happy.
Hence what I believe is the humility of this album, the being-humbled. What’s striking about the album has I think nothing to do with whether it looks bitterly or happily at the events that’ve led the songs’ narrator here: what’s striking is that he’s just looking at this shit. He’s just acknowledging, is just being there, being where he is. Interestingly (I think), that line—”Between what is and what if”—is a line Ritter sings regarding where ghosts really are instead of graveyards. I’ll here make my final, big, bullshitty claim: Ritter’s earlier albums are full of colossal what-if stuff, and Beast is his big What Is album, and it’s gorgeous for it.
Two last things: Ritter’s singing behind himself on the late choruses on “Hopeful,” and the phrase he’s singing is: “The World Is as the World Is.” Take that how you want, but it’s certainly not an accident that the driving, repeated thing is about the world as it is, not as it could be, not as it may yet be, but right now, here, presently. Also: there are, through several of these songs, whispery bits of conversation—what one’s got to assume are whispery bits of conversation between Ritter and his new lover (Hayley Tanner, whose story will fucking bring you to your knees). I don’t want to propose even more grand theoretical bullshit about what that might mean or anything, but you’ve got to love an album that’s built, literally, on whispers. The thing’s a stunner. Ritter’s back, thank god.