Critical Voices: Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away

April 22, 2010

For his seventh studio album, Josh Ritter was faced with a daunting challenge: follow up two of modern folk music’s mini-masterpieces, 2006’s The Animal Years and 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. A tall order for any musician, but one that Ritter gladly tackles with So Runs the World Away.

On his newest album, Ritter abandons the jaunty and upbeat for a simultaneously darker and more lilting sound. Nearly every song on So Runs the World Away has a darker underbelly than their counterparts from his two previous albums, and some—notably “Rattling Locks” and “The Remnant”—actually bristle with hostility. Seething with feedback and distortion, lines like “Black hole, black hole/Are your two eyes as empty as they look?” give off so much contempt that So Runs the World Away is difficult to square with the earlier work of this often achingly romantic former neuroscience student.

While Ritter is more than capable of working within the confines of a three and a half minute song, he is at his best when he can stretch out and let his lyricism take control. Luckily, his full talent is on full display throughout “Another New World,” where he tells the nearly eight minute story of an explorer and his ship, the Annabelle Lee, traveling to the end of the world.

When describing the slow freezing of the sea around his ship, Ritter sings, “‘Til at last, all around us was fastness, one vast glassy desert of arsenic white.” It is at moments like this that you wish the song would go on for another 10 or 15 minutes. While Ritter may be only moderately talented as a musician, it’s difficult to argue that he isn’t one of the best young lyricists in the country.

As dark and depressing as the album can be, Ritter is more than capable of pointing out the light on the horizon. On “Lark,” Ritter shows that he can still pull off the light, doing his best impersonation of Graceland-era Paul Simon. Taking a break from the tales of murder and ennui, “Lark” is an oasis in the middle of the album preparing listener for the weary and discontented second half.

Like most of his albums, the music on So Runs Away the World ranges from serviceable to great. But Ritter’s musicianship has never been the main draw of his albums. The music serves as a vehicle for his lyrics, seamlessly slipping between the sublime and the mundane with a startling frequency.

Voice’s Choices: “Another New World,” “Rattling Rocks”

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    Spot on. I’m listening to it now and you nail it. He is indeed perhaps the finest lyricist since Paul Simon–exhibit A: Bone of Song. And your choices support the claim, although it’s “Rattling *L*ocks” not Rocks. You might also mention the interesting adaptation of Delia/Stagger Lee/Angels Laid Him Away, a reference back to his study of early American folk song. Ritter has the mind of a scholar and the soul of a poet.