Lately, no one has had the temerity, the guts, to start writing thoughtful, apocalyptic songs about love, peace and Iraq. But now, Josh Ritter does. He writes careful, thoughtful, ruminating songs; all so personal and intimate yet buoyant and energetic. If you believe the hype, you'd think he was the next Bob Dylan, Springsteen or Paul Simon, but he's not. If anything, Ritter belongs in the line of troubadours like Will Oldham, John Prine, the young James Taylor, Steve Forbert or an acoustic Neil Young. But that still doesn't characterize him completely. His tunes are mostly acoustic layers of thoughtful, wistful music with hooks and clever-yet-effortless sounding lyrics.
I spoke with Josh at his home in Moscow, Idaho, as he was resting up before his latest tour, which will bring him to Charlotte's Visulite Theater. What comes through loud and clear is that Ritter loves his songwriting and the connection between his music and his listeners. "It's like you throw out a whole lot of fishing lines. You never know what or who you'll draw back." Now 29, Ritter left Idaho for Ohio then moved on to Boston, following his muse. He did open mics for a long while, eventually hooking up with an Irish band called the Flames. "You can do open mics for only so long. It weeds out people who don't, you know, have the fire. But they [the Frames] invited me and it was a great challenge."
Josh was asked to regularly perform two-song warm-ups for the Frames, which then earned him a chance to accompany them on a tour of Ireland. What happened next is as improbable as it is true. He became a sensation in Ireland, which obviously was a big break. Reviews and airplay followed, which eventually brought him attention back home and, ultimately, his latest solo CD titled The Animal Years. "Touring Ireland was great," Ritter says, "because it taught me a lot about what really matters. You know you see your picture on a billboard -- it's so fleeting -- but it's not that important. You're paying for it, it's your publicity. But meeting real people you otherwise would never meet and communicating your music, that's way more important. You're doing it because you want to write songs and perform."
Touring now in support of the new CD, Ritter brings three other musicians with him. "There's me, I play acoustic and electric guitar."
Organ-playing Sam Kassirer also playing piano and synthesizers; bassist Zack Hickman taking on guitar, mandolin, ukulele and lap steel; and Dave Hingerty on drums are all featured on Animal Years.
The CD title comes from Ritter. "It was so perfect. You start to play music and you tour. It's such a strange lifestyle. I felt I became this half-man/half-animal, out in the middle of the country. It was so bizarre. Everyone else is living their lives and doing things more normal. After 16 months of touring, I became the proto-hunter-gatherer, going out and doing stuff, trying to find a way to make sense. I think back on that time and feel definitely those were my animal years."
Animal Years includes songs about distant places, often with a longing for home, but don't say Ritter writes road songs. "Only Bob Seger should write road songs. I write songs about travel, not road songs. No American should write about how hard the road is. It's been done! I don't think anyone should write road songs, except maybe the Irish. They wrote about leaving Ireland, and their songs are heartbreaking."
The CD was produced by Brian Deck, also known for working with Modest Mouse and Iron and Wine. About the production, Ritter explains: "You don't have to be in a big city to record -- not that I mind big cities. The studio we used was 25 miles from Seattle, on the way to the Cascades. If you're out in the woods, there's less to distract you. There were no distractions there, except for a bowling alley."
What results is a tasteful, tuneful recording with varied audio layering of instruments, vocals and subtle electronic bleeps, making Animal Years a minor treasure. The chording may be simple, but the sparse production creates a recording where the lyrics speak loud, bold and clear.
You can't mention Animal Years without emphasizing the immense "Thin Blue Flame." This 10-minute epic poem is something to play after Dylan's "Masters of War." The PR kit likens it to John Milton writing alt-country. It's a song that takes on all religious true believers and their path to war and destruction. The words are lyrical, moving and poetic:
And in that clear undertow
I saw Royal City far below
Borders soft with refugees
Streets a'swimming with amputees
It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart
It's getting harder to tell them apart.
Ultimately, this is a song of hope, as after the vocal warnings build to a crescendo, Ritter sings:
I woke up beneath a clear blue sky
The sun a shout the breeze a sigh
I wondered what it was I'd been looking for up above
Heaven is so big there ain't no need to look up.
Other Animal tunes do as well, like "Girl In the War" with New Testament Peter and Paul discussing current events in timely fashion:
Peter said to Paul you know all those words we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.
But I got a girl in the war Paul, her eyes are champagne
They sparkle over and in the morning all you got is rain.
Ritter has this knack of writing songs that lodge in your brain with hooks that keep repeating. It's not Dylan, Springsteen or Paul Simon, but it's a gift. And according to the singer-songwriter, "the reality of my musical life -- it's way cooler than what I fantasized as a teenager. It's way deeper."
Josh Ritter plays the Visulite Theatre on July 25 at 9pm. Slow Runner is support. Tickets are $12 advance, $14 at show, www.visulite.com.