Josh Ritter, as Greg pointed out, is not an up and coming musician. Being listed in Paste’s 100 greatest living songwriters means you’ve made it. The Beast in Its Tracks marks his seventh studio album and he hasn’t lost a step. Ritter will never be nominated for male vocalist of the year or album of the year, but his songs are so layered and complex and he has such a way with words that lines jump out and grab a hold of you and it’s difficult to get away.
The Beast in Its Tracks is an breakup album. Ritter wrote this album in the wake of his divorce and it’s evident on the album. In “Certain Light”, Ritter sings of being happy again “for the first time, in a long time.” But that’s nothing special. What makes that lyric so poignant is the line that comes right before that. “And she only looks like you, in a certain kind of light, when she holds her head just right.” It’s not the complexity of the words or how they’re sung. It’s the feeling behind them and how they hit you.
“Hopeful” is a particularly intriguing song. It’s title and chorus sound like an uplifting, or at least positive song. But listen closely and there is nothing about this song that’s remotely positive. It’s a song about a relationship crumbling and the spin that it puts on both his and her future relationship again. I’m not going to quote the whole song, but these lines stick out as particularly painful. “She went away and she packed all her lovin’./ I could not believe it how little there was./ I stood in the cold kitchen with nothin’ to say./ Who’d keep the whole world spinning when she went away, yeah?”
“New Lover” is another particularly striking track. While vaguely hopeful, this song sounds more like a confession. It’s an admission of shared guilt and that’s what makes it feel so intense. “Perhaps the fault was mine, perhaps I just ignored/ Who you were always gonna be instead of who I took you for./ I’ve been treated worse (it’s true), still I expected more.” Lyrics like this are what make Josh Ritter the songwriter he is.
Lastly, there is one happy and hopeful song on the album and it is, perhaps, the best song on the album. “Joy to You, Baby” is song about seeing and wishing joy on everything from cars and freeways to the many and the few. It’s especially a song about wishing joy upon the woman who broke his heart. It’s a surprisingly not bitter song and one that shows the character of a narrator in a way most songs aren’t capable of.
While most certainly not up and coming, Josh Ritter yet again proves that he doesn’t write songs. He writes poetry to music. In a way most musicians can only dream of, Ritter does not sing songs to be heard, he writes them to be felt.