Josh Ritter is walking a very dangerous path, a path taken
by another promising Josh R. many years ago
that led from a couple of the finest singer-songwriter records
to the inevitable poor choice of 70's rock. Well, unlike that
other ill-fated Josh, Ritter hits the 70's style, but doesn't
let it overwhelm and change his unique voice. While his previous
work has been very storytelling and acoustic-based, The Historical
Conquests marks a change in the musical career of Josh Ritter,
similar to when Bob Dylan went electric, and I fear it
may have the same effect on his fans. But not to worry faithful
fans of Josh Ritter, all is not lost, and he doesn't try any disco
The Historical Conquests sports another change in Ritter's
music - other than his electrification - and that is his storytelling
writing style is somewhat subdued and replaced by songs a bit
more personal in nature. This is a welcome change, but having
said that, I also miss Ritter's incredible ability to weave a
strange tale. His uncanny knack for turning a clever phrase is
not lacking, though, as on "To The Dogs Or Whoever"
he rambles through quirky phrases like "Jane shot the apple
right between the eyes/ I was thinking of her when you came outside/
Lemonade on your breath sun in your hair/ Did I mention how I
love you in your underwear?" Lead single "Mind's Eye"
borrows its opening guitar riff from The Clash, but diverges
after that, building a deliberate rhythm amongst its parts and
introducing the world to the new 70's rock influenced Josh Ritter.
The good news is that the more you listen to the track, the less
disturbing the dated weirdness becomes. "Right Moves"
blends the trademark pushing-vocals of classic Ritter with a piano
and syncopated/orchestral chorus that could easily have been found
on the overproduced bits of Glen Campbell's records from
back when. The rhythm and melody are extremely catchy and this
song is the perfect juxtaposition of the new and the old Ritter.
"The Temptation Of Adam" is more classic Josh Ritter,
after the trumpet intro the song drops into familiar beautiful
acoustic guitar territory with some fine fingerpicking and the
genius lyrical sensibilities for which Ritter has become famous.
This is the lightest and most graceful moment on the record, recalling
the finest, most beautiful moments of Hello Starling. "Edge
Of The World" continues the downbeat beauty in its solo acoustic
this track is one and a half minutes
of heavenly bliss.
"Real Long distance" may as well be an Elton John
piano rock tune
While it is a great song, the lyrical allusions
are very 70's and the piano, while rocking, is very derivative
the real difference comes at the breaks where the guitar gets
supersonic, something Sir Elton would never have had. Finally,
Ritter breaks out the Americana on "Next To The Last True
Romantic", steel guitar and train drumming carrying the lo-fi
produced tune along its way. "Still Beating" recalls
The Animal Years a bit more, a perfectly balanced alt-country
tune with heavy folk leanings and eerie production values. It's
a fine moment of beauty, filled with nice down-key horn solos
and acoustic guitars that leads nicely into the once more Glen
Campbell-like tone of the rousing "Empty Hearts". Perhaps
the most catching lyrics and lullaby-ish melody on the record,
this track is another fine example of the genius of Josh Ritter
and the reason why so many have fallen head-over-heels for his
music. With the ending chorus going full-bore "Singing don't
let me into this year with an empty heart/ With an empty heart/
Don't let me into this year with an empty heart", this would
have been an excellent album closer, but after a brief moment's
pause, Ritter gives us an example of his jangling acoustic Dylan-isms
with the excellent acoustic and chorus reprise of "Wait For
Love (You Know You Will)".
Admittedly, most of The Historical Conquests is a bit
hard to accept at first. But after having really listened to this
record more times than I can count, I have come to a complicit
agreement with it. While I have to set it slightly apart from
Ritter's previous works, I also have to admit that this is the
sound of an artist growing. I miss the uncertainty and spontaneity
of his earlier records, but I can also appreciate the methodic
and wonderful production on this new record. Some of my favorite
artists have released records that were hard to get into at first,
but given a little time those slow-burners have become some of
my favorite records. I have a feeling that The Historical Conquests
is that kind of record
it takes a few times to build a rapport
with the soul.
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