From protozoan to Ponce de León: Josh Ritter’s new album

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

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.
Josh Ritter plays The Beacon Theatre

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.

River days

There was a moment recently when I and everything I own was out on the road between my old place and this new one. I sat in the cab of the rather overlarge moving truck, my computer backpack resting safely on my knee, feeling exhilarated and chatting to the classics student who had come to help me move. Brandon told me about his recent trip cross country with the moving company’s owner, how they hiked the Grand Canyon and skied at Tahoe while shepherding some family’s possessions from one life to another. It was a write off, he explained.

Did you know Mark Twain once claimed a gorgeous, unsettled virgin forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and then promptly burnt up nearly every tree on it? He and a friend had to launch a boat into the lake to escape the accidental conflagration. You won’t believe the things that happened to Mark Twain, and the things he made happen. The life he lived. I’ve been reading a fine biography of Twain since I wrote about Best for the Best and had to admit ignorance about his life.

So, first a clarification. Regarding the riverboat scenes in Josh Ritter’s song Best for the Best, I wrote, I can see that riverboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes. It turns out this was not the preferred way to pilot a steamboat down the—albeit placid—Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. It turns out it required rather constant attention, and Twain spent much of his time behind the wheel quite frightened that he would crash or run aground. In fact he had recurrent nightmares about it. But the river—his piloting years were interrupted by the Civil War and he never took it up again—was a great source of nostalgia throughout his life, and, as was often his way, once some years had intervened he remembered it slightly differently than he had lived it. When things got sticky he often spoke longingly about returning to the river, as if he’d be immune to troubles there.

In the final verse of the cryptic song Monster Ballads we hear from Twain via Huck Finn:

And I was thinking about my river days
Thinking about me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn

There’s reflection here, and high adventure, fluent friendship, flight from the law, and yet the setting imbued with the solemn and sacred. The river as church. In light of what I’ve read about Twain and those four evocative lines, I’ve been thinking about the notion of river days. Those stolen seasons of our lives when we drop our bags and forget who we are or were supposed to be and run barefoot through the tall grass of life. When the experience becomes all.

Travel is usually required. Youth helps. I chose London: went for six months, came back with hardly more than my original suitcase four years later. I had the time of my life, or so my heart keeps telling me, when Parliament or Piccadilly rises up in my mind’s eye and mocks the routine that has worn down an easy path—or a rut—that I’ve begun to follow without having to watch where I’m going. That first year in London everything seemed injected with the novel. I went about buzzing with the heightened awareness of it all, as though outside myself. Even I was a novelty, and this new me observed the other in the huge glittering city and in interaction with new foreign friends, questioning all sorts of things never questioned—or even acknowledged—before, and tending a bumper crop of new insecurities. They were good, though. They made me grow. And they made me think quite a bit about America and her place in the world.

Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been drawn to water, and some of my best thinking and feeling during my London days occurred while staring out at the muddy Thames. How to describe what happens when two human eyes linger over a body of water? Words don’t seem enough . . . soothing, I suppose. Monster Ballads just might prove that music can do better. You’ll also get the sound of journey, with the hypnotic, playful bass line and gentle, regular percussion. And so much more, or something else entirely: Monster Ballads is extraordinary in that it’s one of the most vibrant and vivid musical portraits I’ve ever heard, seen, touched, and yet it’s also . . . a pristine ivory canvas . . . being caressed by wind-rippled curtains on the windows . . . of a room of sunshine-scattered gold coins . . . in a mountainside cabin. Grab a brush, it says.

Of course the problem with having had some river days is that one can get a little impatient when the adventure dies down. One can find herself standing in her kitchen belting I don’t give a damn for just the in betweens. She might walk blocks and blocks out of her way to have a secret serenade by a foreign accent. The hard times abroad, marinated by memory, will soften.

And if one is honest she might find herself trying to replicate that frusterated river days sensation in compartments of her stateside life. She might sell all her furniture and move into a condo share across town, just to shake things up, to see if anything can seem new again. And she may, as the moving truck approaches the turning off the main road—the westward journey broken at just four miles—be tempted to turn to the driver and say, “Can we keep going?”

The past an address

Seattle was lovely—the coffee rich and hot, the sky blue, water water everywhere, and the library a bonefide future glass building that gave both inspiration and vertigo. The Seattle Art Museum is revived and very recently re-opened; I think the wine glasses we drank from came straight out of the box. Josh came along to the SAM, where I stood in front of a Native American piece that referenced Three Sisters, and, smiling just a little bit, I thought of this line from Thin Blue Flame:

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land

It comes in that earthly-ethereal, Elysian final verse . . . and for months now I’ve been luxuriating in the imagery, thinking, “All that . . . and Chekhov too?”** I suppose heaven is what we make it—surely one message in Thin Blue Flame—and I’d gone and pulled out a chair for that fine writer. Oh well, he can come anyway. Something tells me Josh won’t mind.* And, yes, I’m ignorant about Native American agricultural history. It won’t be the last thing I get wrong about these songs; they’re complicated and weird (high praise in my book), and that’s part of the reason we’re here.

So now I’m home and packing to move. On Saturday I had an impromptu meeting and shaking-of-hands with the gentleman and father of four who paid $3.2M for this gorgeous building that was home to around fourteen people and ten apartments. He was showing his shy, smiling parents the boiler room, speaking in Italian. I introduced myself and asked whether they’d like to step into my humble place (surely destined to become the wine cellar, the maid’s quarters, or the laundry room).

He was gracious and humble, with kind eyes, and despite my ambivalence about moving away I could muster no animosity. Instead I burbled about how my years here had been so special, how I had considered writing a letter to the new owner and leaving it in the Ernest Hemingway fold-down desk. It felt a bit silly to congratulate someone on the cash purchase of a $3.2M home in possibly the most beautiful part of the city, and certainly I did not calm any fears by giving my assurances of how much they would enjoy the neighborhood, but congratulate and assure I did. He seemed genuinely grateful, and, as I said, kind. He said goodbye, I shut the door behind him, and I gave the wall a little pat. Phew.

One inevitably thinks about the coming in the planning for the leaving, and I will be forever mindful that I arrived here with a broken—no, a mangled heart. And now I leave with a mended one, even if there are some scars. It took just shy of two years. This little place under the sidewalk was here waiting on the nights I felt so bereft and so betrayed by the still-turning world—so low—that my homeward footsteps slowed and I, feeling unequal to one more, considered lying down on the sidewalk’s cold concrete. This home and its fickle oven hosted last summer’s baking school, when Sunday afternoons were reserved for the playing of classical music and the mastering of quickbreads, muffins, pies, cobblers, cookies, and cakes.

It cooperated when learning to cook took over in the fall, and my father and I spent a weekend hunting studs in the wall—him, drill pulsing, cursing old buildings’ basements and the things that lurk in their walls—in order to mount a pot rack. Those same walls did not sigh when I repeatedly reconfigured the furniture and moved decorations, learning to listen to its space and successfully making it my home, and one—my first—that I loved. Its inlaid bookcases handsomely supported my acres of books.

It opened its hobbit-sized door to Grief and we sat and gazed at it together, turning it round, memorizing all sides, and I cried, and cried and cried into its silence, determined to put in my time, hoping each honest encounter would be the last. It welcomed me home late at night during the harried months when I socialized and volunteered like a hamster on a wheel, booking some engagement nearly every night so I’d fall into bed too tired to think. It stayed up while I learned about investing </yawn> so I could invest the money I’d saved and exile anxiety about financial independence. It was screening theatre to Scorsese’s No Direction Home, which I watched each time it aired last autumn, the sight of a young brilliant Bob Dylan staring blankly out making me weep for reasons that weren’t clear. Yet. It was concert hall for Dylan and Josh Ritter, whose music I played incessantly through the winter and spring. It was sounding board for those first strange, spontaneous laughs—at the TV, at Josh’s lyrics—and later, the hilarity that sometimes ensued when visiting with friends.

This “studio plus” didn’t judge when I scrawled the sad and bitterly triumphant last verse of Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind on my whiteboard (changing letters to emails), even if my brother did, after beholding it with furrowed brow, laughingly suggest I take it down before inviting anyone else inside. It was reading room to numerous books that kept me company and led me back to warm wonder at the world. It witnessed the deepening of my most cherished friendships and put in motion a resolution to be a fine hostess, one whose home says Drop-Ins Welcome. It kept the light on and nudged me, like a mother bird, out the door when I ventured out on a first date that might as well have been the first ever.

It was a portal of prayer.

Lest I sleep too soundly its radiators clanged in the small hours of the winter nights. Its wonky windows swelled in the rain and even then couldn’t keep out the city’s dirt. The hot water failed on the mornings of some very important meetings, and the drains served up absolutely monstrous centipedes every once in awhile. And its charms shrunk away with the rest during some very lonesome times. But it gave me the space and the silence in which to write in a way I hadn’t before—and writing began teaching me all kinds of things that I hope will never stop.

There’s a line in Thin Blue Flame that goes

The future glass buildings and the past an address

There are, of course, numberless ways to talk about Thin Blue Flame, numerous things to explore. There are tiny phrases of precious gem that give way to panoramic themes. Lately I’ve been thinking about The past an address, thinking how much it says in how little, and how it captures a courageous approach to and respect for history—political and personal. (The politics in Thin Blue Flame can’t be denied: one gets the idea Josh will rejoice when 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one folksy frat boy’s past address.)

The past an address says sometimes it’s time to pack the U-Haul and set out for new beginnings. It says, don’t worry, it will still be be there—no bull dozers, please—and you’re welcome to drop in when you need to, to sit in the garden and remember when, to wiggle your toes in the fountain, to tear up the floorboards for time capsules and corpses, to resurrect and reinterpret heroes and villains. To revisit and rethink or even revise.

The past an address says But we don’t live there anymore. It was splendid for awhile, but we never quite fixed the electrical problem; we didn’t think the new boiler was worth the expense. We made some lovely memories. We healed some wounds. We made some terrible mistakes. It was time, so we’ve gone down to the post office and arranged for the forwarding of mail. You’ll find us striking out somewhere new, somewhere with space enough for all our new ideas.

And for the future.

Next: River days




**I’ve just remembered (vaguely) that the notion of going to Moscow (Russia) as escape from the family’s stagnation and failure in the country figures largely in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Moscow, Idaho, you may know, is Josh Ritter’s hometown and perhaps the setting of that final verse of Thin Blue Flame.

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land