What is it about Josh Ritter that makes him so damn genuine? It’s too easy to point to his rural Idaho upbringing — there are plenty of old-soul New Yorkers and Angelenos and an equal number of small-town bards who are rubbish. Previous albums such as 2001’s The Golden Age of Radio and 2003’s Hello Starling were preternaturally mature pieces, The Animal Years feels effortless. Ritter nails it to such an extent that I’m surprised I haven’t seen Ryan Adams taking potshots at him in some interview.
Producer Brian Deck replicates his success with Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days, again taking the barest of instrumentation and most plaintive of voices and expanding it miles wide. The songs on The Animal Years are at once freed from the deepest chambers of Ritter’s heart and spread across the vast good earth.
There are so many highlights to choose from. “Girl in the War” is a poignantly evocative gender reversal that’s also an indictment of our nation’s current battles and the consequences therein. Up-tempo numbers such as “Lillian, Egypt” and “Good Man” are quintessentially pleasing foot-stompers. Ritter’s voice throughout is steady and assured, anchoring his tales in a concrete place and time.
Perhaps The Animal Years‘ biggest gamble is the ten-minute “Thin Blue Flame,” a manifesto of apocalypse, judgment and hope that in other hands would across as an epic conceit. (I’m looking in your general direction, Conor Oberst.) Devastatingly evocative, “Thin Blue Flame” conjures deep metaphors, literary allusions and traces of bleak humor to form a major statement and an indelible centerpiece to an amazing album.
Josh Ritter fearlessly treads where giants have traveled before him. His agrarian common-man ballads and story songs invite comparison to certain artists that no relative neophyte should feel comfortable alongside. The Animal Years is not a work of one who’s studied the great folk-rock icons; it’s an album born of honest and God-given craft and heart. Maybe a lesser artist will come along and study Josh Ritter in the near future.