I cannot really do justice to an album review. I don't seem to have the vocabulary or understanding of music. That being said, I'm quite taken with Josh Ritter's new release, entitled The Animal Years.
Ritter is a hard-working, hard-touring folk singer who has developed a unique style -- not the typical guitar strumming but a diverse collection of instruments round out his sound. The sound is diverse but not too diverse, sounding sometimes like Dylan, sometimes like a Beatles tune, and even occasionally like Springsteen. So, the first attachment for me was to the music.
But I'm ultimately a lyric snob. If the words are trite or cliched, ultimately I'll abandon a work. And here, there are no cliches and certainly nothing trite. A lot of this is pure stream of consciousness (hence, the Dylan comparison), the meaning not readily apparent, but the phrasing and the images are rich, creative, and very concrete. He draws from history and literature for his images, painting a rich tapestry. If you love words, you'll attach yourself to these songs even if you don't know what they mean.
In addition, he actually writes two good songs rooted in the effects of the Iraqi War and the concern over religious extremism. Most singer-songwriters have the obligatory ant-Bush or anti-War song or even album (Neil Young is the latest), but most sound like preachy propaganda set to music. These songs, "Girl in the War" and "Thin Blue Line," are more complex and more humanly and humbly rendered. "Girl in the War" is addressed to St Paul, and Ritter questions, like the Psalmist, why God isn't bringing peace: "Because the keys to the kingdom got lost inside the Kingdom/ And the angels fly around in there but we can't see them/ I got a girl in the war Paul/I know they can hear me yell." Thin blue line is even sharper in it's questioning of God: "He bent down and made the world in seven days/ And ever since he's been walking away," or "It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/ It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart." And "If what is loosed on earth will be loosed up on high/ It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die." In all this Ritter shows his familiarity with Scripture, but he can't quite believe. At least not yet.
But like I said, I can't do it justice. Get a copy. It's a beautiful record to listen to. And, one man's questions will help us understand the questions many ask: Is God up there? Is he listening? If so, why doesn't he do something?