By Brian Lightfoot
Josh Ritter’s latest release So Runs the World Away is an emotionally rich reflection on life, death, disillusionment and pain. Though it is largely a record centering on the tragedies of broken love and human loss, it is also one of hopefulness and joy in reflection on the overall human experience.
On this fifth release, Ritter’s lyrics are deeply intentional and cover a surprisingly wide variety of narrative styles. The changes from sincere, first person perspective to fanciful third person storytelling and back again are practically seamless. This point of view variation creates a mosaic of affecting images that together construct a moving and highly listenable piece of art.
Musically the record melds well with Ritter’s lyrical prowess and storytelling abilities. Ritter and the other musicians featured on the album manage to follow traditional folk progressions while adding distinctly ambient, and often chilling, musical accompaniment to the songs. The instrumentation on the record helps to set scenes in the already meticulous lyrical arrangements of the songs. Rattling rhythms, gusty and reverberating organ and trumpet tones, and gently played piano and guitar build into joyful bursts of musical energy. The ebb and flow of the record is lovely and pulls listeners to carefree and peaceful peaks on “Lark” and “Long Shadows” (both reminiscent of Paul Simon), then dives them down into the pain-filled and religiously disillusioned valleys of “Rattling Locks” and “The Remnant.”
Ritter pays homage to a variety of great artists, poets and explorers (including Poe and his muse Annabel Lee, and Christopher Columbus in his quest for the New World) while struggling alongside them in search for truth in darkness. He also gives a heartbreaking tribute to the great Mississippi John Hurt in “Folk Blood Bath,” which references the blues classic “Louis Collins” and fits perfectly with the other movements of the record.
As in much of Ritter’s work, So Runs the World Away contains handfuls of biblical allusions, most of which are distorted by his disenchantment from overly simplified Christian ideologies applied to deeply complex and painful life situations. Repetitive themes of adventure into unknown territory, of sailing across seas into new lands and of delving into starry skies and black holes arise on the record, linking the human need for discovery and adventure to the fear of facing a possibly empty and cold universe. The track “Lantern” especially highlights Ritter’s religious frustrations while imploring mankind, through love, to continually light the way for one another in a sometimes dangerous and gloomy but collective journey.
A sense that Ritter’s newest set of songs come from a place of deep experience and conviction makes this a truly great folk record; relatable themes constructed from rare musical and lyrical mediums make it one worth listening to repeatedly.