In April 2006, Josh Ritter, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and muse for this very blog, released the phenomenal album The Animal Years. In the tracks you’ll find howling, menacing wolves and more wolves, peaceful birds on the wheel, packs of dogs, a startled horse in the road, doves transformed into fire-breathing dragons in pursuit, and mystic light-seeking moths. There’s a maddeningly mysterious wire albatross, and a tiger roan—which I think is either a stripy or angry horse, if you were wondering, and probably a sweet little Idahoan literary allusion.
Is this menagerie what is meant by The Animal Years?
Let’s hear from Josh:
“The title had been in my head for a while and I tried to convince myself it wasn’t the one I should use,” Ritter admits, “but for me it was perfect. I was thinking back on the period of my life leading up to this record and my experience up to that point was, you get up, you start to play music and you tour. It’s such a strange life style. In a lot of ways I felt like I became this thing, half-man, half-animal, out in the middle of the country, playing. It was so bizarre. Everyone else is living their lives and doing things that are a bit more normal. Man, after a year and a half on the road, 16 months of touring for Hello Starling, I became the proto-hunter-gatherer, going out wherever and doing stuff and trying to find a way to make sense in a human way. But, really, in the end, you’re just trying to get food in your mouth. I think back on that time and feel definitely, those were my animal years.” — from joshritter.com
Ah. So in that album live the spoils of a man in survival mode, a man out chasing his dream at the expense of all else. A man with one eye on normal, one eye on the audience and the road. It’s like the soundtrack to hunger, journey, doubt . . . and fear, maybe.
Yeah, I hear all that there. Do you?
Josh has also said it’s about being confused. Check.
One thing I find rather irresistible about Josh Ritter is his immense respect and nostalgia for the past. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I tend to go forward looking back. Perhaps too much, I often worry. But striving for that balance between deference to and breaking with the past is a crucial undertaking for humankind. Everything’s moving so fast these days, and we’re obviously hard-wired to seek out newness. But there’s such wisdom and richness in our history: I love that Josh is making old things new, reaching back in time for inspiration and yet going so innovatively forward.
I will tell you that reading Mark Twain as a companion to The Animal Years is hugely revealing. I’ll write more about that. And I’ll try not to dwell, despite my excitement at the announcement of an upcoming new record, on the slight melancholy over the fact that the Animal Years songs that I’ve come to know—for they knew me—and treasure will relinquish their “new release” limelight and domination of the tour set list.
The album that grew up out of that proto-hunter-gatherer phase seems to have catapulted Josh quite far up the food chain. On August 21, 2007, if you live in America, you can go find out what Josh has been thinking about since making his own feast out of famine. The new album, titled The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, comes out in Ireland on September 7, and is available worldwide in October.
Here’s a rather sexy preview that appeared recently:
The title suggests we’ll get some more history. (Abe Lincoln, anyone?) But then there is also that Ritter affinity for double meanings, for extreme concision of expression. As a reminder, conquest is defined this way:
1. the act or state of conquering or the state of being conquered; vanquishment
2. the winning of favor, affection, love, etc
3. a person whose favor, affection, etc., has been won
4. anything acquired by conquering, as a nation, a territory, or spoils
It feels like the spirit of Josh’s previous albums—explorations of #2 are certainly well represented. But it’s a reincarnation, maybe: he’s a conquistador now, not starving animal. Well, we’ll see, and I can’t wait to hear . . . even if it sends me straight back to the library. I hope it does.
He’s back on tour again this summer, with French jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux. The photo above is from a recent show at the Beacon Theatre in NYC. According to the folks at Café Eclectica—they kindly let me use the picture—Josh said he was performing in a hand-me-down suit.
Yeah. That sounds about right.