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.