Josh Ritter The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

[Sony BMG; 2007]

Styles: country, folk, indie
Others: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bright Eyes, Spoon

Josh Ritter’s got an excess of soul, and on The Historical Conquests Of..., he wants you to know it. The tongue-in-cheek title is not inappropriate, as Ritter seems to have conquered the characteristic languor and heartbreak of past albums and emerged as a mature artist who is as versatile as he is moving.

It’s not necessarily that the ladies have stopped making Ritter suffer, but that maybe he’s learned to have a little fun with it. Opener “To The Dogs Or Whoever” is a reckless romp through whimsical lyrics (“Running her hands through the ribs of the dark/ Florence and Calamity and Joan of Arc”), howling choruses, and an unhinged band that nods to Bringing It All Back Home-era Bob Dylan. Ritter has learned to be a little less uncertain, just a little less gentle as an artist, and throws musical and lyrical punches with unexpected skill: “My day might be coming/ Yours is coming first/ I'll knock you outta your daylights,” he growls on the Spoon-like piano stomp “Mind’s Eye.”

Making an album like Conquests was a dangerous step for Ritter, as piling on heavy instrumentation — when simplicity is your thing — can lead to overproduction, among other train wrecks. But this album is a train wreck in the best possible way. It is fueled by an untamed energy — no doubt a product of Ritter’s chemistry with his band — that makes you believe that each moment of a song is entirely organic. On “Rumors,” Ritter sounds like he’s conducting his Fats Domino orchestra with a firecracker. The horns squeal and squawk at the pick-up, and it seems he’s barely able to rein in the instruments to begin. But when the first real chords hit us, the instruments dance, darting in and out of each other’s parts; it’s obvious that the song’s success can only be accredited to the heavy orchestration that went into it. And so it’s the illusion that we’re hearing the only incarnation of the song that is perhaps Ritter’s greatest feat. There must’ve been countless outtakes, but we never doubt that “The string section’s screaming/ Like horses in a barn burnin’ up.”

Ritter’s stylistic growth doesn’t discredit his past work. On “The Temptation of Adam,” for example, Ritter has kept the finest, most beautiful moments of albums like 2003’s Hello Starling while seamlessly integrating them into the winking bombast of Conquests’ other tracks. The song is introduced by muted horns, which step out of the way in favor of an acoustic guitar. But with Ritter musically in the nude, his prowess as a writer and storyteller is revealed to us. In the context of two lovers trapped in a nuclear missile silo, he tells of the forces that try what it means to be a man and what it means to love. Ritter confesses, “I think about you leaving now/ And the avalanche cascades/ And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions,” and it is his original take on such a universal topic that is both devastating and wonderful. Such honesty is gracefully echoed only by the pluck of the guitar and the occasional lament of strings. Nothing does or should get in the way of Ritter’s voice — so gentle that it is perhaps the sonic embodiment of the caresses of which he sings.

Perhaps the album’s only flaw is its length. No song out of the 14 feels out of place, but the last three tracks — enjoyable as they are — could easily be hacked off and turned into B-sides. It’s important for an album to end strong, and while “Wait For Love (You Know You Will)” is fun, you’re left wondering why Ritter and co. chose to redo the lovely original version (track 8) and then tag it on again at the end.

What makes The Historical Conquests Of... a great album and not just Ritter’s foray into stylistic versatility is the integrity of his musicianship. The album is thorough; it is complete. It may not be completely innovative, but innovation only goes so far. Ritter’s gift is that each track possesses a life force that differentiates it from any other; his voice acquiesces to the soul of a song as if it could only ever be the convicting snarl of “Rumors” or the melodic sigh of “Temptation of Adam.” And yet, in the end, there remains something intangible that makes the tracks inextricably tied to each other. The odd musical gesture or fit of passion does well to allude to the fact that each song on The Historical Conquests was born from the heart of the same man.

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