Josh Ritter – The Animal Years

So even though me and iTunes have fallen out massively since it’s latest update, I still cannot deny the fact that it introduced me to Josh Ritter.  The epic Thin Blue Flame was a free single of the week that I first heard Ritter’s wandering voice and his engaging lyrics, which add layer upon layer to his excellent compositions.  I quickly downloaded the full album, The Animal Years and it pretty much instantly became one of my favourite album, and that’s without it containing my favourite Josh Ritter track, Kathleen.

The simple strumming guitar intro to Girl in the War gives a summery feel that is defied by the poignant sentiment of words.
Peter said to Paul / You know all those words we wrote / Are just the rules of the game / And the rules are the first to go
The drum and bass are a brilliant counter point to the guitar and the orchestration gradually builds as the lyrics paint an evocative lament of a man whose girl has been called away to war.
But I got a girl in the war Paul her eyes are like champagne / They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got in rain
It is a simple beautiful song which I never get bored of listening to.

Wolves kicks in with galloping piano and drums and Ritters vocal rides in over the top
The winter came / There was little left between us / skin and bones and love won’t make a meal / I found my eyes lifting over your shoulder / to the wolves at the edge of the field
In the words of a friend of mine, Ritter has a beautiful turn of phrase and wolves has an uplifting vocal, even though the lyrics are somewhat melancholy.  A quick look on songmeanings.net and it clearly means different things to different people.
Sometimes in the frozen nights I go roaming in the bed you used to share with me / I wake in the field with the cold and the lonesome, the moons the only face I see

Wolves fades straight into the subdued organ of Monster Ballads, which is then sunk beneath it’s regimental drums while the piano and bass skip over the top with Ritter’s boxed in vocals.

Lillian, Egypt is probably the most evocative song on the whole album.  An old fashioned romp of true loves running away together.  The guitar speeds up with the drums and as the protagonist relives his tale, complete with a saloon style piano solo
I remember back in Illinois I found her / The lily of the valley / The lily of the West was a rose / The daughter of the biggest big town banker / He kept her like a princess / I stole her like the Fort Knox gold

Idaho is a stripped down confession, just the sparse strumming guitar and a ghostly vocal
I gave up a life of crime / gave it to a friend of mine

One More Mouth is one of my two favourite songs on the album.  A slow, soft ballad lead by an electric guitar that bounces slowly through the intro to the clear vocals.
You act like you don’t need nobody else / And you dance like you don’t need nobody else / And all the other moths need light to circle round / You just fly … around yourself
The slow looping guitar rolls under Ritter’s questioning vocal before the soft drum kicks in and the song, and you, winds down.
Honey why you gotta hide your face from me / Will I starve in this eclipse while you treat every hungry kiss / like one more mouth to feed

A piano led introduction, before a steam train drum beat with a soft guitar riding over the top, Good Man crept up on me to become the other favourite song on the album.  Another song where they lyrical imagery conjures up different meanings for different people, but for me, the break down in the middle is the best part of the song.
You’re not a good shot buy I’m worse / And there’s so much where we ain’t been yet / So swing up on this little horse / The only thing we’ll hit is sunset

Clocking in at just under ten minutes, Thin Blue Flame feels like a labour of love to listen, as if you’ll only reach the end if you’re a big big Ritter fan.  But it’s a brilliant song, the instruments lifting and dropping as the vocals preach over the top and the whole song builds and drops, the guitar, and then piano rising slowly, as Ritter’s voice urges them louder to a peak that drops just before it explodes, and then starts again, before a final melancholy verse takes the song to it’s rousing crescendo.
If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room / The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons / He bent down and made the world in seven days / And ever since he’s been walking away

A haunting, simple, piano love song finishes the album, with Ritter hoping he’s in time to save his lover
Under wide blue skies / There’s a place to lie / For me and Evelyn to hide tonight / I’ll try my best to make a go / but I’m not sure and  I don’t know / Oh Chariots / If you’re out there please swing low

The other tracks, In the Dark, an almost traditional ballad and Best of the Best, a stripped bare reminiscence of experience, are also good, and the whole album is a perfect example of Ritter’s sheer talent for crafting a beautiful song with wonderful evocative lyrics that conjure imagery in front of your eyes.

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