It could be best

On Saturday a plane sliced across our cloudless indigo sky leaving a white plume. It was straight as an incision, the sky bleeding white jet stream that quickly dissipated into wisps. The magnolia trees stand poised to bloom on our main thoroughfare, the buds pointing skyward. Everyone, it seems, is happy. Or faking it. It’s a glorious time to be in the city.

It’s a year ago this month that I discovered Josh Ritter. I listen to the fabulous Iain Anderson of Radio Scotland at work, and he played Best for the Best last spring. I brought up the playlist immediately. The questioning, unanchored opening guitar riffs that morph into a gentle melody that says Come away with me, the bright, warm, slightly tired voice like a caress, the mysterious lyrics. The achingly gentle piano. Who was this guy? I found the official website, and I was on my way.

But let’s talk about Best for the Best. It was inspired by Mark Twain, apparently. (If only you could have followed my bewildered thought process, when I, in the stupid instinct that often seduces audiences, presumed it was autobiographical.) I’m afraid I have to read up on Twain a bit. I do know he lived an extraordinary life, rich with varied experience, and of course there’s the small matter of his being one of our most revered writers and orators. (And I did read some of his novels, years ago.) It seems a critique of those who dismiss others’ tribulations with that hackneyed phrase, “It’s for the best.” The narrator ultimately decides to make his own way, and to accept that some things most resolutely are not for the best. And that people and conventional feel-good wisdom are wrong much of the time. It’s a somewhat cynical notion, surely, so rather a paradox that it is the genesis of a rebirth of hope for me. But it’s Josh, so there’s romance, too: “Now I listen to my sweetheart and I listen to my thirst,” he says.

The thing is I was living this sentiment out a bit (though not in wrestling ring or riverboat) in April 2006, and yet it was simply the sound that initially drew me in. I mean, that voice. That tender, commanding voice. It was weeks before I properly considered the lyrics. I was going through a rather terrible time, and I’d had my own crop of “best” betrayals heaped on me by lazy well wishers. And I’m not sure the resentment is fairly focused on the well wishers; I think it’s also just at the fates, a rejection of blind acceptance of “Everything happens for a [good] reason.” (Something I’ve never been quite able to swallow, or especially, to say.) I love the personification of Best as something able to be lashed out at, rejected, and insulted: it’s unkind, damnable, blameworthy, false. Personifying the mystery and unsettling randomness of human experience in this way seems a grand tribute to human spirit.

My favorite line is “Now I ride a lazy river through the Mississippi fan.” The lullaby phrase is the languid wending water, the chords of the piano the tiny windblown crests in the current. Josh’s voice is lazy and resigned—the words slurred—as it traces a melodic arc that follows the speaker’s resignation. I can see that steamboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes.

My goosebumps line is “But I was lonesome for a girl who could pin me down.” It’s reminiscent of Dylan—so many speakers doomed to drift, exiled to forever search, but longing for a woman’s quieting influence. And me, like countless others, lonesome for a brooding, world-weary riverboat captain/heavyweight wrestler/celebrated American writer/singer-songwriter to pin . . . you know, insofar as pinning down means setting free.

Your thoughts most welcome.

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