Singer Josh Ritter talks about harnessing heartbreak of divorce for 'Beast In Its Tracks'

Special to Lowcountry CurrentJune 19, 2013 


    WHAT: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band

    WHEN: 9 p.m. June 25

    WHERE: The Music Farm, 32 Ann St., Charleston

    COST: $20


Some artists spend their whole careers deflecting explanations about what they've written, preferring to leave such details up to the adaptable whims of the listener or the perpetual appeal of mystery. In announcing his new record -- the sterling, stop-reading-this-and-go-buy-it-already "The Beast In Its Tracks" -- Josh Ritter dragged the explanation on stage and threw a spotlight on it.

"I wrote and recorded this record in the 18 months after my marriage had fallen apart," he said in the album announcement/message to fans. "All heartbreak is awful -- my broken heart wasn't unique. But writing these songs was helping me get through the night, and I didn't have the strength to care or question." And thus was born what the media/Internet christened Josh Ritter's Divorce Record.

But if you've been following Ritter's career -- if you haven't, you should immediately seek out his 2002 debut "The Golden Age of Radio" and listen onward through 2007's "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter" -- you know that the Idaho-born singer is not one for self-immolation, or even allowing himself too much time on the dark side of town.

"A lot of times a record about something as painful as a divorce will have a different feeling than I felt 'The Beast In Its Tracks' did," Ritter said in mid-June on a break from the "Beast" tour, which resumes in Charleston on June 25. "The first couple months after everything came crashing down, I was so filled with rage and manic energy. I wanted to record. I felt like I had all this mojo taken away from me and I lost all this power, and I wanted to write mean stuff, angry stuff. But it felt futile even then. The songs felt forced. There was such moral outrage that it was kind of silly, you know? Even at their meanest they weren't fun."

What helped him find his way and find a workable center for "Beast" was finding a way to grasp more than one thread. "It took a while to realize that I was writing about this rage, and that doesn't make for very interesting listening. I hear records like that and it's very rare that they can keep me interested. I certainly wasn't interested in these songs," he said. "So it was a little bit longer before I realized the record was about cataloging and mapping these overlapping strains of emotion. And once that happened I started picturing the emotions in myself and my personality as one of those barium tests, where your whole circulatory system lights up. Once I saw that, the writing became much, much easier."

Stronger, too. In the end, "The Beast In Its Tracks" proves as disarmingly heartening as a divorce album can be; it's got at least as many beginnings as endings. Mother Jones called it "The Cheeriest Breakup Album Ever," which is not something you hear a lot about "Blood on the Tracks," another "track"-themed divorce record by Bob something-or-other.

It's also a serious creative pivot for Ritter, who had made himself known for conjuring and wandering lush, cinematic narratives: "Harrisburg" is a papa-was-a-rolling-stone tale set among infrequently visited churches and train yards; "The Curse" is a time-traveling romance that stars at least one Egyptian mummy; and "The Temptation of Adam" is probably American culture's best song about two nuclear missile silo operators tumbling into a doomed love, partly via crossword puzzles. He was not, as you might imagine, the kind of guy who spent a lot of time writing about himself.

"Every record has a dose of autobiography, but I've always tried to keep it distant," he said. "I really think that songs should be untethered from the author once they're recorded. Otherwise, it feels like you're a dude who comes to a party and just talks to someone for like an hour and then leaves; you tell someone all your problems and then leave. It feels very ungracious."

So for "The Beast In Its Tracks" he scrapped the evocatively named characters and Bible references and fleshed-out sonic settings in favor of a direct, boiled-to-the-bones record that was entirely about him. It was weird. But it didn't take long.

"One of the first songs where it really hit me in the face was 'New Lover.' There was so many different emotions in there and every one of them was honest and clear and so easy to write," he said. "When something is easy, the tendency I have is to add to it and elaborate on it. But I just didn't have the energy, you know? And I thought, 'Well it has to be enough and it really feels like enough so I'm just going to trust it and not add on to these things and make them more than they are.'"

The sound is surprising. What's less surprising is how as the album rolls on, the sunshine virtually breaks its way in. Ritter says he considered unfolding his own narrative in chronological order, but scrapped the plan in favor of a story arc that finds his "New Lover" bringing him back off the ledge. Three songs in and in "A Certain Light" he's "happy for the first time in a long time" with a new girl who "only looks like you in a certain kind of light." "Hopeful" is, you know, that. By the time first single, "Joy to You Baby," rolls around near the end of the record, his heart is patched enough to wish both him and his ex a future of peace: "Joy to the many/joy to the few/joy to you baby and joy to me too."

But that's to be expected. Ritter is responsible for some of the most relentlessly joyous, pretention-free music in recent memory: Seek out the live version of "Snow Is Gone" and if you are not smiling midway through then your face probably doesn't work. Even the glittering, perfect "Kathleen," about a guy who gets to drive his crush home from a party, a girl who's not even close to his, soars off on some impossible thin strand of hope. "Just remember this whole world is spinning around you, and the opportunity to be out and soak all of it up is not one to be missed. I feel the same way about the record, it's a big juicy crazy thing that happened and the only way to do it is to really embrace it."

He's also -- not to spoil the ending -- happy at home with his new girl.

"(The record) is just not what I thought it would be. It wasn't unrelenting. And it just happened that songs like 'Joy to You Baby' and 'Lights' came about during a time when I was much, much happier. So it wasn't about the divorce, but everything that came after, and in that way I feel so great about it."

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