Review: The Beast In Its Tracks by Josh Ritter (or, “The Overcoming of a Bogey-Artist”)

Image Courtesy of Josh Ritter

I decided to tackle this album review because Josh Ritter is an artist that, for a long time, has been on the top of what I like to call ‘my guilty folky’s list’. That’s my name for the list of important artists that I know every folk music fan should be intimately familiar with that I’ve embarrassingly never explored. Don’t judge me, but accompanying Ritter on this list includes acts like Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, The Avett Brothers and Elliott Smith. For shame, right?.

Although I tried listening to each of Ritter‘s previous 3 widely acclaimed albums The Animal Years (2006), The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007) and So Runs The World Away (2010), they never inspired me to keep listening when they were stacked up against a world of alternatives. Although I appreciated Ritter’s way with words and clever storytelling, I suppose this appreciation came out of a conscious analysis of his music instead of an emotional reaction, which is personally what I crave.

The first time I listened to Beast In Its Tracks I tried my best to approach it with an open mind, knowing the potential for it to fall to personal bogey-artist curse, but still my first impression was underwhelming. My usual background research on the album uncovered that Beast In Its Tracks is essentially a break-up album following Ritter‘s divorce, which gave me hope that the album would offer songwriting  that was raw, unrestrained, defeated, bitter and painful musically and not just lyrically. However, for the most part, I found that it was largely set to a background of upbeat, level, rhythmic pop-strummin’ n’ pickin’ without a great deal of dramatic variation, rise-and-fall or progression to support any kind of underlying storyline within individual songs that might conjure the emotional reaction I craved.

What I did begin to find though, on second and third listen, was a sense of melancholy. I read in Pitchfork’s review of the album that Ritter confessed to fans that the first songs that he wrote on the other side of his divorce were “too full of hatred and self-pity” to record. Instead of offering those emotionally dense musings from the winter of his despair, this album is obviously the product of the springtime of Ritter‘s ordeal (to reference Ritter’s own prose from the album): stories of him moving on with his life with one eye on the future and one on the past, with a sense of optimism and a sense of mourning. Once you come to terms with that, the album becomes a lot more accessible and that neutral balance of upbeat and downtrodden emotion makes a lot more sense and the lryics start to take you to a place where they are able to affect you. One of my favourite lyrics of all time echoes that wry, contradicting balance of emotions on display in this record perfectly:

“The first time I made coffee for just myself  I made too much of it, but I drank it all just cause you hate it when I let things go to waste”

That’s from a song called “Woke Up New” by The Mountain Goats, and just like much of The Beast In Its Tracks, it’s paired with chirpy chords and accompaniments and draws its power from a similar kind of melancholic place. Ritter‘s lyricism on this album is starkly honest and unapologetic. I find that most albums have a song that summarises it. A song that says in 3 minutes what the songwriter wants to say in 30. I think for The Beast In Its Tracks, that song is “A Certain Light”:

My new lover, sweet and kind
The kind of lover that one rarely finds
And I’m happy for the first time, in a long time

Came along and opened up the door
And though I know I’ve been in love before
Oh I feel it, so much more, than the last time

And she only looks like you
In a certain kind of light
When she holds her head just right

Its been winter, for a while
The north winds wail cut like a baby child
It was hard to think or smile
That brings springtime

But it did and now it is
The green green grass
Is come up green and its
Feeling just the way it did
The very first time

And she only looks like you
In a certain kind of light
When she holds her head just right

And anymore, it’d stretch the rhyme
So let me leave this where I started, 
I’m just happy for the first time
In a long time

In a long time

I love the sadness of that tainted joy, and that’s what this album is consistently about. If you listen through to the end of the album you’ll be rewarded by finding the album’s few catchier tunes as well like “In Your Arms Again”, “Bonfire” and “Joy To You Baby”, which perhaps makes the album a bit less accessible than it could have been if it had been front-end-loaded. Still, The Beast In Its Tracks is new ground for Ritter, concerned with personal experience and thoughts, making my impression of it to be far more relatable than his previous albums, although I admittedly gave up on them too early. Below are some songs from the album to listen to and a live clip of “Joy To You Baby” which I particularly enjoy.

The conclusion that I’ve taken from this challenge I set myself to overcome one of my bogey-artists and tick another name off of my “guilty folky’s list” is that if you’re not getting any joy from one of the world’s most beloved and renowned artists, there’s nothing wrong with the music, there’s just something wrong with you.

2 Comments

  1. April 5, 2013 at 10:29

    […] “Ritter‘s lyricism on this album is starkly honest and unapologetic. I find that most albums have a song that summarises it. A song that says in 3 minutes what the songwriter wants to say in 30. I think for The Beast In Its Tracks, that song is “A Certain Light”” – Thom Owen Miles reviews The Beast In Its Tracks by Josh Ritter. Review here […]

  2. Vic Zubakin said,

    June 30, 2013 at 23:33

    Josh Ritter has been one of my favourite folk artists over the last decade or so. Though his recent albums have veered more towards folk-pop. I much prefer his earlier folk albums.

    He’s a great songwriter that unfortunately early on in his career was burdened with the ‘next Dylan tag’. My introduction to Josh Ritter was through the most unlikely avenue of a soundtrack for a ski film called Sinners. Though this was no Warren Miller high-octane flick – it was an arty B&W film shot in backcountry BC in Canada with lots of slow motion edits coupled with a folk/blues soundtrack. Josh’s contribution was a haunting ballad called Harrisburg & an upbeat song called Snow is Gone. The soundtrack also featured The Frames & the slide guitar of Lester Quitzau.

    I’d recommend exploring some of his early albums to get a really good handle on Josh Ritter. I don’t think you can go past the 1,2,3 punch of The Golden Age of Radio (2001), Hello Starling (2003) & The Animal Years (2006).

    I really want to see him play live but he’s only toured Australia once to my knowledge & that was as support for Simon Felice in 2012 & I missed that gig sadly.


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