The great American songbook hasn’t had a real curator sinceBruce Springsteen‘s arrival nearly 40 years ago. There’s no worldchampion, American-bred folkster making rounds on apeak-of-their-career level – the holdovers, like Bob Dylan or theBoss, have simply been doing victory laps since the ’90s.
But then there’s Josh Ritter, part of what could be the lastgeneration of great American singer-songwriters, who specialize in thesame field for which American music has become internationally heralded. Ritter, however, has the ability to tie those well-worninfluences to a latter-day, indie folk aesthetic that continuallymakes his work a lot more vital than the average twanger. He fitsmore in with someone like John Darnielle or Andrew Birdthan, say, Jackson Browne.
So Runs The World Away is Ritter’s seventh full-length record, and ashas come to be expected, it’s a remarkably solid work with no obviousweak points or songwriting lapses, keeping attention spans dutifullyinvested through all 55 minutes. Its biggest strength is its storytelling. Like the bookworm he is,Ritter writes about characters instead of feelings – the album playslike a collection of short stories, fables, and journal entries.
Thepeople who occupy these tracks range from Egyptian pharaohs (Curses)to 15th century explorers (Another New World). Ritter never botherswith the slash-and-burned ground of traditional love and heartbreak;his songs have a level of intrigue that many singer-songwritersfail to capture. Anyone can write about a girl, but audiences willreally start to listen if you’re writing history, science fiction, andhorror.
A few of these songs are impossible not to like,specifically the post-intro opener Change Of Time – a wistful musingon individual purpose and of rediscovering oneself through the powerof memories. It’s a concept every member of humanity has experienced,but it’s never been explained quite as precisely as Ritter manages. Buteven if he was just singing gibberish, the gorgeous flick-fingeredacoustic melody and the pastoral twinges in the man’s voice make thesong ensnaring all by itself.
It’s easy to get caught up in Ritter’snatural knack for lyricism and forget the level of compositionaltalent on display. Unlike most folk artists, he creates deep, dark,spacious rooms for his songs to live in – it really gives an ear a lotto take in. Producer Sam Kassirer builds the music in levels; thepercussion, jangly guitar and vocals are kept hovering above each other,letting the sound feel big, crisp, and multifaceted all at the sametime.
There aren’t too many surprises in So Runs The World Away. But anyone familiar with Josh Ritter’s musical identity knows what toexpect from the record. That said, it might very well be his best. The manhas been telling his stories for more than a decade now, but for somereason, this particular album seems to be more effective bothmusically and in the stories it tells. It’s not something that will blow down thedoors of perception, but it will be something that pretty mucheveryone will appreciate listening to. It’s a work ofcraft from a continually rewarding, continually American,singer-songwriter.