Josh Ritter's best asset is that he's unassuming. His kind of folk-pop could slide quietly into a VH1 morning video block and, if you weren't paying attention, the hook might catch you. But you'll miss all the good stuff -- the clever lines, the compelling stories, that lilt in his voice. Once you've caught up to what he's doing, once you hear that first crushing line, he can be pretty tough to ignore. If you don't believe me, go listen to The Animal Years again.
What made that record his best is the same thing that makes So Runs the World Away a tad uneven. The Animal Years -- and most of The Historical Conquests of... -- expanded folk songs into lush landscapes without weighing them down. And the best stuff here does just that, stretching these songs out with simple elements. "Change of Time" is, at its base, just Ritter and his finger-picked guitar. But the simple ringing of distorted chords, the crashing cymbals, and the distant backing vocals transforms it into a much bigger haunt.
It also lets us know what's coming in the best moments of the record. The clever mash-up of folk characters that comes in "Folk Bloodbath" is (title aside) a great anchor in the middle of the record. Perfect because it gives us that subtle layering, but also because it visits an old world -- populated by old souls like Louis Collins and Stack-o Lee -- that fits perfectly into an album cast far out to an old sea. On this record, we hear of Ritter drinking salt water, and setting off into the pacific, and even surviving on the wooden wreckage of a ship called the Annabelle Lee. It is an album adrift, stuck between places and, much like its characters, simultaneously romantic and heartbroken.
With that in mind, the album swings between bright haze and dark shadow. There's still room in it for Ritter's ear for a perfect mesh of emotion and wit in both his writing and his singing. "It ain't no wonder the babies come out crying in advance," he slips into the excellent "Lanterns." And, late in the album, he delivers a threadbare epic in "Another New World," which is both the least probably of the album's stories and the most believable, because Ritter's voice folds in on itself effectively and the instuments -- as many as there are here -- all remain faintly storming around him, creating a lasting tension.
But there's another side to So Runs the World Away that doesn't hold up quite as well. In some places, like "Southern Pacifica," there's less subtle to the production, and layers gets crowded and buffed to a confused shine. "Rattling Locks" tries at a sinister clack and groan, but instead it wanders until it's lost in its own echo. And "The Curse," though a simple piano waltz, finds Ritter's storytelling just a little too clever. Each verse takes too long to build up to its pay-off line, and it's easy to space out without his usual knack for detail.
The good thing is that for any misstep here, there's a success that overshadows it. But for those of us waiting for him to really knock another out of the park the way he did on The Animal Years, it might be a let down to realize So Runs the World Away isn't that. Maybe that's unfair, and maybe we shouldn't burden him with his past success. But there's a lot to find out there on the sea, so if you're going out there for inspiration, best bring back all the treasures you can.