josh ritter — so runs the world away

Josh Ritter — So Runs The World Away. Out 4/17 on limited release vinyl for Record Store Day 2010; out wide release on 5/4, V2 Records. Thank god for Record Store Day vinyl releases, is all I’m saying.

There’s not much that Josh Ritter and the Drive-By Truckers have in common, but this year, there were a few things; namely, the Truckers’ The Big To-Do and Josh’s So Runs The World Away were two of my most anticipated albums of the year, and the two albums I was most terrified I was going to hate. It’s a different reason for Josh than for the Truckers, though. Unlike Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, Ritter’s 2007 The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter is not only my favorite release of his, it’s one of my all-time favorite albums period, one of the most played albums of the nearly 3000 in my iTunes library. (I still think it’s as close to a singularly perfect album that you can reach in this day and age; god, that album.)

I was terrified I was going to hate the new release, because I loved the one before it so much.

And in both cases, I shouldn’t have worried, because I flat-out love So Runs The World Away like I loved The Big To-Do. I love it differently from all of Josh’s previous stuff, but I love it; I don’t want the artists I love to make the same album over and over again, I just always want them to make a new and different album that I can love. This one hits that.

I listened to this album for the first time driving from Carrboro to just shy of Thomasville, NC, on a sunny Sunday afternoon; I listened to it for the second time sitting in traffic on that drive, right outside of Winston-Salem. The first listen I soaked in it, and the second listen I started to pull it apart, to think about it, to think about what I wanted to say about it. And I realized: there’s another similarity between the Truckers and Josh Ritter, and it’s that Patterson Hood and Josh are two of the finest storytelling songwriters working today. There’s very few songwriters I’d hold up against them if I wanted to give an example of a songwriter who can tell the shit out of a story set to music.

“The Curse” and “Folk Bloodbath” stand out in that way for me; complete, unique stories told in song, from start to resolution. “The Curse” is oddly creepy in its beauty, the love song of a woman and a sleeping prince-slash-mummy, and the delicate vocals and horns make it something unusual, a different story than your usual prince-saves-princess story of long sleep and awakening. “Folk Bloodbath” owes huge debts to both the traditional “Stagger Lee” and Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone”, but instead of feeling like a rip-off, it again feels like an old story told in a new way. (And I love seeing Josh wear his folk influences on his sleeve like that.)

Sonically, it’s much closer to the Animal Years than Historical Conquests. It’s a quieter, slower sound, the kind of thoughtful sadly joyous songs that mark that album as opposed to the up-tempo bang-on-pots-and-pans joyous songs of Historical Conquest, but it’s also a much more complex album, musically, than tAY. The horns and the subtle guitars, the whimsical and light-sounding piano lines, the places where the vocals echo just faintly; the whole album shimmers like a highway stretching out in front of you in the summertime. The spot in “Change of Time” where the electric guitar kicks in and the piano turns up, the chorus of “Lantern” — it’s an album that’s floating along on superb musicianship that I think occasionally gets lost in all the discussion of Josh’s phenomenal songwriting talents.

It’s a very good, very complex album. I haven’t spent enough time with it to unpack the whole thing, to be able to step back and see it as a whole. But, oh, the songs, the songs are delicate and heavy in the lightest way possible, and the whole thing feels like sunshine on the ocean on a breezy May afternoon. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.

It’s rare that I get to drag out one of my film shots these days; most bands that I write about, I’ve seen (again) since buying Six and consequently I’ve shot them digitally, but I haven’t seen Josh in almost two years. He’s playing the Carolina Theatre in Durham in a few weeks, and I’m dragging my feet about that show, for a couple of reasons: it’s expensive, but I could swing a ticket if I really wanted to; mostly, dragging my feet because it’s seated, and in all likelihood I can’t shoot a seated show the way I’d want to shoot Josh. Plus, who sits down at a Josh Ritter show? If you’re sitting down at a Josh Ritter show, you’re doing it wrong. So film today, and until another Cat’s Cradle date, it is.

That said: if anybody from Josh’s management company reads this and you’d like to hook me up with a photo pass and/or a list spot for the 5/11 Carolina Theatre show, you can reach me at asdonkar at gmail dot com. Is all I’m saying. I’d do a kick ass job shooting and writing about Josh, I promise.

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