Album Review

Eamon Murphy
Josh Ritter just keeps on surprising.

Already well known to music fans for his toe-tappingly great tunes of the previous decade or so, his last outing, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, showed he could mix lively feel-good country rock with some bewildering imagery of a Dylanesque nature, previously hardly hinted at.

His musical progression persists un-arrested on So Runs the World Away, as our smiling wolf-featured hero continues to expand his musical horizons.

To an extent, we’ve heard much of it before. Tunes about songbirds and trains, somehow evoking Mark Twain and other Ritter heroes, reassure long-term fans that Josh hasn’t yet given up on just what it is he does best. But the album breaks new ground too.

Take ‘Folk Bloodbath’. A narrative as well-spun as ‘Rocky Raccoon’, it’s a song built from a handful of old blues/folk tunes that have seen outings by Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan amongst others. It’s new territory for Ritter, who has until now made his name with bouncy country rock hits like ‘Right Moves’ and ‘Me and Jiggs’. My immediate thought was to wonder what Johnny Cash could have done with it. And it’s a song that would have been more than worthy of the great man.

It’s not the album’s only highlight either. The record begins enchantingly, as the opening instrumental intro fades into the beautiful ‘Change of Time’. A glockenspiel and Ritter’s delicate picking perfectly complements the light fluttering vocals that carry some of Ritter’s most beautifully atmospheric lyrics to date.

On ‘The Curse’, mellow yet playful piano accompanies a centuries-old Egyptian Pharaoh on his journey to a New York museum, as he falls in love with the archaeologist transporting him. Sound a little far-fetched? Maybe. But Ritter makes it work.

Tom Waits springs to mind immediately on ‘Rattling Locks’, both in the heavy repetitive bass and perfectly broken percussion, and in the dark growl with which the lyrics are delivered.

For those hoping to hear something to throw their spirits skywards like the opening strums and lines of ‘Kathleen’, ‘Lantern’ is perfect Ritter. Building slowly from a pleasant enough conception, the song’s splendid amalgam of banjo, lap steel and electric guitar build to such an exuberant climax that the listener’s soul is sent soaring, even though the song contains lyrics as harsh as

“Where the living is desperate
Precarious and mean
And getting by is so hard
That even the rocks are picked clean
And the bones of small contention
Are the only food the hungry find”

One could argue that managing such a feat is bordering on genius, and there’s plenty more on this record to back it up.

Easily Ritter’s most diverse album to date, So Runs the World Away contains enough variety to at least partly justify the comparisons being made with his acknowledged influences. He might not relish being the current possessor of the “new-Springsteen” tag. But on no previous album has he offered more evidence that he may be deserving.