Josh Ritter, ‘The Beast In Its Tracks’ – Album Review
Josh Ritter has an old soul. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been releasing folk-laced Americana albums since 1999, and unlike many of his Springsteen- and Dylan-aping contemporaries, he undoubtedly has "the gift." His lyrics are rife with religious references and literary beyond their years.
In our humble opinion, his big moment came in 2008 with ‘The Animal Years,’ a collection of songs that ranged from quiet desperation (‘Idaho’) to all-out Bible Belt romps (‘Wolves’). It was a tour de force by any young artist’s standards, and in recent years, Ritter has kept up the momentum with a pair of strong studio albums (which have seen some Billboard chart buzz) and a string of reissues and live recordings to keep the fan fires stoked.
On his latest, ‘The Beast In Its Tracks,’ Ritter takes a step backward to the reserved, snoozer-folk of his first few offerings. It’s starkly produced, forward and at times angry. Something seems off. And in a sense, it is: Ritter, in an open letter on his website, admitted that he was weathering a divorce during the writing of the album. Caveat emptor?
The album’s goal, we can only assume, is to be a form of catharsis, but it comes off more like a long, vintage whine. The melodies aren't the problem -- it’s the lyrics. After the umpteenth reference to lost love, finding the new girl and his mended heart, listeners may find themselves saying, "Enough already! We get it." Maybe it was too difficult to write about anything else at the time, but ‘Beast’ is mono-themed to ill effect.
That's not to say that the record is a total waste of time. On ‘A Certain Light,’ Ritter brilliantly stabs at an ex-lover's heart. ("She only looks like you in a certain kind of light" … um, ouch?) ‘Evil Eye’ -- whose whispery 55-second lead-in, ‘Third Arm,’ could have been the best song of the bunch had it been fully realized -- sounds like a ’70s Paul Simon outtake, just that sort of melody a truly gifted songwriter can weave together. And ‘Nightmares,’ whose melody smacks of (cough) Jack Johnson, is a surprisingly fun little earworm.
Overall, though, the album is a major disappointment. We’re hoping that before Ritter writes his next collection of songs, someone doesn’t go and break his heart.