Josh Ritter got a bad case of writer's block while he was working on his latest album, So Runs The World Away. In a recent New York Times article, he confessed, "I realized I had nothing to say. And that's never been my problem." Indeed it hasn't—in his decade-long career, the 33-year-old songwriter has released six studio albums and three live ones, from his minimalist self-titled 1999 debut to the raw, up-tempo The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007). Ritter could have taken time off, rested on his laurels, and waited for his muse to return. Instead, he pushed himself, trying to overcome his lack of inspiration.
In many ways, his work has paid off. Ritter has produced an album that's easy to listen to and well-crafted. But the CD also feels belabored, and much of the blood, passion, and insight that made his earlier albums great is missing.
It's telling that the first song he wrote for this album is about someone dead, eviscerated, and entombed. "The Curse" relates the tale of a mummy who falls in love with a beautiful archaeologist. Sadly, the mummy's erudite friend is not immortal, and she eventually grows old and dies. There's nothing wrong with "The Curse" from a musical standpoint. It's pleasant, original, and the lyrics flow beautifully. What's missing is the human element, and it is difficult to engage emotionally with a slow-paced love song that fails to transcend its own whimsy. Love songs also have to contain an element of sexiness: it's hard to get past the inherent grossness of the mummy metaphor.
"Another New World" offers a second literary adventure. An explorer—the sole survivor of a failed arctic expedition—is forced to chop up his beloved ship to keep warm. Later, after being rescued, he mourns the loss of the vessel, speaking about it as though it were a woman. The song is ghostly and ethereal, but it doesn't haunt us. We can't expect Ritter to have an experiential connection to an arctic explorer, but he doesn't really seem interested in fleshing out the character, and as a result we don't connect emotionally with the adventurer or the song.
"Southern Pacifica" is another superficially pretty tune. Much of Ritter's music is inspired by old-time Americana, and this track is in many ways a "wanderin' song". The problem is, traveler's ballads generally have a certain rough-around-the-edges quality and work best when sung from the perspective of the down and out. Ritter's piece is too polished to convey the tormented restlessness that makes these songs connect on a gut level. His protagonist sounds more like an English major itching to back pack through Europe than a truly restless soul.
The song's lyrics also lack urgency and depth of feeling, especially compared to other songs about traveling and looking back on past loves. When Josh Ritter writes about the girl he left behind he muses, "Remember me to Roxy Anne/ You know she's still lovely/ Tell her I was on the move/ The last time you saw me." Bob Dylan also uses simple lyrics in his song "Girl from the North Country," but he includes intimate details that suggest his lingering affection for his lost love. He asks the listener to "Please see if she's wearing a coat so warm/ To keep her from the howlin' winds" and to "Please see from me if her hair hangs long/ That's the way I remember her best." Ritter does not offer us any romantic descriptions or expressions of affection to indicate that Roxy Anne meant more to him than a passing fling.
Ritter delves further into the Great American Song Book with the tune "Folk Bloodbath." The track borrows its refrain from a Mississippi John Hurt song and combines the stories of three ill-fated characters from American musical history: Louis Collins, Delia, and Stackalee. Each of these unfortunates was originally killed in a separate traditional folk song. Louis Collins, a character who previously appeared in a Hurt song, dies in a duel. Delia, from Blind Willie McTell's eponymous song, is shot by her beau. The character, Stackalee, first appeared in a popular blues song about the murderous pimp, Stagger Lee Shelton. The real "Stackalee" died in prison but his fictional alter ego is hung for his crime.
In order to discuss all three characters, Ritter shortens their back-stories and eliminates emotional touches, such as the descriptions of weeping mothers or of the victims begging for their lives. In "Folk Bloodbath", we never find out what happened to poor Delia, who has simply "gone to rest" before the song commences. In Blind Willie McTell's version, she screams "Jesus Christ" before getting shot by a .44. While gruesome, such details gave the old tracks their bite. Ritter's tale feels sanitized by comparison.
While Ritter is a brilliant lyricist who can spin complex, poetic metaphors, he is at his best when he keeps it simple. "Long Shadows", the last track on the album, is lovely, straightforward, and romantic. And that's okay. It moves listeners without employing mummies, arctic explorers, or folk murders. While flawed, So Runs The World Away illustrates another aspect of Ritter's talent: in addition to writing a great folk song or hard rock ballad, he can spin a creative, visually descriptive story. His tales may not quite work within the format of a CD, but his interest in narrative has inspired him to try his hand at a novel, Bright's Passage, which is scheduled to be released in 2011. The book's longer format should allow Ritter to flesh out his characters more fully and bring them to life. As for his music, let's hope he goes back to his roots.