Why I Can’t Stop Listening to Josh Ritter

By

I’m obsessing over the music of Josh Ritter. Last year, Pete and I met Evie Coates at the coffee shop to talk about Hutchmoot 2010. We talked about the program, the menu, the number of forks we needed, then we drove over to Church of the Redeemer so Evie could check out the kitchen. I rode in her fabled old red truck and she asked if I had ever heard of Josh Ritter. When I said no she looked at me like I should be ashamed of myself, then she played me a song called “Another New World” from Ritter’s new album So Runs the World Away. I was mesmerized.

The song was about this Ernest Shackleton-type captain, an adventurer who musters a crew to voyage with him to the frozen north because he believes a new world lay hidden, waiting “for whoever can break through the ice”. Ritter’s voice was both intense and easy on the ears, the story the song told was haunting and sad and mysterious, and I wanted to hear it again. And again. But at that point we pulled into the church and planned Hutchmoot instead.

Later that day she texted me the two songs I should buy from that album in case I was still wary of getting the whole thing: “Another New World” and one called “The Curse”. I forked my $1.98 over to iTunes and listened to the songs a few times, then one night on the road Ben and I watched the music video for “The Curse”, at which point I realized that–get this–the song was about a mummy who falls in love with the archaeologist who discovers him.

And with that, ladies and germs, I was in.

I bought the album and listened to it about thirty times, marveling, above all, at Ritter’s lyrics and the stories he tells. If you know me at all, you know I’m a word nerd. I love to read a book in which I can sense the author’s love affair with the tools of his trade. I want to marvel not just at good stories, but good sentences. So I geeked out when I heard Josh Ritter sing these lines (from his tale of the voyage of the Annabel Lee):

After that it got colder, and the world got quiet,
It was never quite day or quite night.
And the sea turned the color of sky
Turned the color of sea turned the color of ice.
After that all around us was fastness,
One vast glassy desert of arsenic white,
And the waves that once lifted us,
Shifted instead into drifts against Annabel’s sides.

Now, before you read on, do yourself a favor and read that lyric again. Read it aloud. If you’re at work, cover your mouth and whisper it to yourself (that’s what I do at Starbucks). That, my friends, is the work of a ninja. That’s the kind of evocative, alliterative, narrative, imaginative, roll-off-the-tongue writing I dream about.

Evie has now cost me about thirty bucks, because I’ve since bought Ben Shive So Runs the World Away, and bought myself The Animal Years, Ritter’s previous album, as well as In the Dark: Live at Vicar Street, recorded in Dublin. And that’s rare for me. I just don’t do that. I usually get into a new artist like I get into a cold swimming pool. I’m the guy who orders the same thing at the restaurant every time, not because I’m picky but because when I find something I like I stick to it. If you looked at my iTunes library you’d still see (other than the Square Peg Alliance) mostly Rich Mullins, Marc Cohn, and James Taylor, the three dudes I cut my songwriting teeth on. I just don’t get into new artists easily.

That’s why I was excited to discover Josh Ritter. Not only do I love the sound, I love that he’s telling me something, and I get the sense that, whatever it is, he believes it–or at least, he’s willing to ask good questions about his doubts. His songs are rife with Biblical references (enough to make me wonder if he grew up in the church), as well as literary ones, though it’s hard to know exactly where he’s coming from, spiritually. I get the feeling sometimes that he’s mad at the God he doesn’t think exists.

Here’s a line from a 9-minute epic from The Animal Years called “Thin Blue Flame”, a song I can’t get enough of:

If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room
The heavenly hosts are just the cold dark moons
He bent down and made the world in seven days
And ever since he’s been a-walking away

It’s a bitter and misinformed depiction of God. (The Gospel is basically the exact opposite of what he claims here. God made the world in (six) days, and ever since he’s been interacting with it, flowering it with beauty, redeeming it, calling to his people, and eventually walking not away but into the world itself.) Ritter goes on in the song to sing about the horrors of war, of amputees and missiles as the only answer from above. There’s layer on layer of imagery, everything from Hamlet to Laurel and Hardy, and it builds to a fever of anger and emotion at the state of the world. But at the end of the song, after he’s said his piece, he seems to take a deep breath. He seems to wake from a nightmare and paints, more or less, a picture of heaven:

I woke beneath a clear blue sky
The sun a shout, the breeze a sigh
My old hometown and the streets I knew
Were wrapped up in a royal blue

I heard my friends laughing out across the fields
The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel
The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay
Cicadas electric in the heat of the day

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land
And the lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand
The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts
They were coming together they pulling apart

And angels everywhere were in my midst
In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed
I wondered what it was I’d been looking for up above
Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up
So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air
Only a full house gonna have a prayer

I think he’s trying to answer all the outrage of the first half of the song with the reminder that somehow a world of beauty, friendship, and peace persists. This last stanza is loaded with card-playing references (notice all the words like “straight”, “flush”, “hand”, “hearts”, and “diamond”), which is cool, even if I don’t totally get it. But then comes the line, “Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up”.

I get what he’s trying to say, or at least I think I do, which is that maybe our time would be better spent not dreaming of some pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by-and-by. I think he thinks he’s pronouncing some indictment on Christianity, as if God wants us to let the earth go to rot and ruin because we lucky few are going to heaven anyway. Of course, that’s far from true. The Church is called to love, and love, and love; it’s an army embattled with the forces of darkness–forces that do want to see the world burn.

But if C.S. Lewis was right (and I think he was), then those of us in Christ will discover in heaven that heaven had, in a sense, overlapped our time on earth. Heaven really is bigger than he thinks, and because of Christ, it’s all around us, making everything sad come untrue (thank you, Samwise and Jason Gray).

From The Great Divorce: “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

The many good and beautiful things Ritter describes in that last stanza are, for those in Christ, the waves of heaven lapping up on our shores, washing back over our lives here. Lewis goes on to say that those who give themselves over to Hell will find that the same is true: they were already at its dark edges. Lewis: “And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.’”

So Ritter is asking good questions. I don’t necessarily agree with his answers, but that doesn’t keep me from being amazed by the songs–and the songs suggest to me that he’s paying attention, watching and listening to the part of his spirit that resonates with a certain secret fire. And if he keeps writing songs this good I think he’s going to have to try pretty hard to ignore the source of all that richness. His imagination and sense of poetry and narrative are a rare gift, and I’m intrigued enough to keep listening. And listening. The same way I listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland. I don’t get every song, and that’s part of why I keep coming back.

My hat is off to Josh Ritter. Please keep writing.

Here’s “The Curse”, along with the lyric and a video if you want to know more. Buy the song here.

[audio:TheCurse.mp3]

The Curse

He opens his eyes falls in love at first sight
With the girl in the doorway
What beautiful lines and how full of life
After thousands of years what a face to wake up to
He holds back a sigh as she touches his arm
She dusts off the bed where ‘til now he’s been sleeping
And under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart
Under scarab and bone starts back to its beating

She carries him home in a beautiful boat
He watches the sea from a porthole in stowage
He can hear all she says as she sits by his bed
And one day his lips answer her in her own language
The days quickly pass he loves making her laugh
The first time he moves it’s her hair that he touches
She asks, “Are you cursed?” he says, “I think that I’m cured”
Then he talks of the Nile and the girls in bulrushes

In New York he is laid in a glass covered case
He pretends he is dead people crowd round to see him
But each night she comes round and the two wander down
The halls of the tomb that she calls a museum
Often he stops to rest but then less and less
Then it’s her that looks tired staying up asking questions
He learns how to read from the papers that she
Is writing about him and he makes corrections

It’s his face on her book more and more come to look
Families from Iowa, Upper West Siders
Then one day it’s too much he decides to get up
And as chaos ensues he walks outside to find her
She’s using a cane and her face looks too pale
But she’s happy to see him as they walk he supports her
She asks “Are you cursed?” but his answer’s obscured
In a sandstorm of flashbulbs and rowdy reporters

Such reanimation the two tour the nation
He gets out of limos he meets other women
Her speaks of her fondly their nights in the museum
But she’s just one more rag now he’s dragging behind him
She stops going out she just lies there in bed
In hotels in whatever towns they are speaking
Then her face starts to set and her hands start to fold
And one day the dried fig of her heart stops its beating

Long ago in the ship she asked, “Why pyramids?”
He said, “Think of them as an immense invitation”
She asked, “Are you cursed?” He said, “I think that I’m cured”
Then he kissed her and hoped that she’d forget that question

For Josh Ritter, Mummies and Shakespeare Are the Stuff of Music from Mike Fritz on Vimeo.

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


80 Comments

  1. MainlineMom aka Sarah

    Brian, I think he means he bought the Josh Ritter CD, So Runs the World Away, and gave it to his friend, Ben Shive. That’s how I read it anyway.

    Really really good lyrics, but based on the song clip you linked I’m not sold yet. Guess I’m not that much of a word nerd. I do cherish good lyrics, but the melodies and texture of the music are just as, if not more important to me.

    I do get into new artists easily and so I will give a listen to more of his work.

  2. Seth H.

    His genius is both invigorating and infuriating. Every time I hear a song like “The Curse” or especially “Another New World” (which I still proclaim to be the pinnacle of all songwriting), it kinda makes me want to give up on my own meager musical ambitions. But at the same time, I know that giving up means I would never write anything that good for sure. Ritter, like Dylan and Tom Waits before him, has raised the bar for all of us.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I cannot stop listening to this guy. He’s purely amazing. The bits that Andy quotes aren’t even my favorites. That’s not to say Andrew’s wrong, but to say that his songs are full of so much great writing that everyone is going to find different things to love.

    I’ve listened to “Thin Blue Flame” about a million times now and love it more every time I hear it. Here’s a great live performance:

  4. Travis

    Girl in the War is my favorite from him, off of the Animal Years (which, by the way, is not his previous album, that goes to ‘The Historical Conquests of….’)

  5. Elizabeth K.

    Uh, Andrew, I think you’ve just convinced me to buy $30 dollars of his music. Seriously.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  6. Mark

    Great post on Josh Ritter. I especially love the discussion of Thin Blue Flame. That song has long both thrilled and frustrated me. The lyrical beauty rivals Dylan or any other songwriter or poet I’ve ever listened to or read, but his ultimate conclusion is one I can’t agree with. If you get a chance to see Ritter live, do it. His show is incredible.

  7. Jeanne Lane

    I squealed inside when I saw the title of this post. I have been curious about this Josh Ritter person, without knowing exactly what to think; I’ve just dipped my toes in to his music so far. I just happened to hear “Change of Time” on a local station recently, and it left me intrigued and kind of startled, not quite sure what was up with it; but the music caught me and drew me in, and, as you said, the lyrics were word-nerd intoxicating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Someone just asked me this on Twitter, and I’d love to see what you song-lovers think. What’s the deal with the ending of “The Curse”? Why does he give us that flashback to the opening scene? Why does the mummy hope she forgets the question?

    And this dangling question is part of what I love about the song; it’s a puzzle I delight in not being able to quite solve.

    Sarah–In the post I didn’t dwell much on the sonic/melodic aspect of his songs, but it’s hard for me to separate the lyric from the sonic bed they lie in. I think the musical texture and melody are beautiful. It’s folky–I can hear the guitar/piano in there–but it’s swimming with other, strange and beautiful sounds. I bet you’ll like it more if you give it a few more listens. I should also mention that not all the songs on this new record are as mellow as this one. He rocks out, and does it well, but those aren’t my favorites.

  9. Jodi K

    Like you, I have a hard time connecting with new-to-me artists (excellent swimming pool metaphor, by the way, that is just how it feels), and I might be almost as excited about Josh Ritter today as you are. Thank you!

  10. Dori Richardson

    This was a truly amazing post…got goosebumps, and am looking forward to many more as Josh Ritter downloads on my iPod!

  11. Canaan Bound

    Andrew, after watching that video, I can totally see why you like him. He is a storyteller at heart, and a wordsmith to be sure. Apparently, kindred spirits aren’t as scarce as we once thought…

  12. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Andrew played “Another New World” for me a week ago and I bought the record right away and haven’t stopped listening since.

    It seems to me to be the closest to the mystery, fancy, and grandeur of what I love about Leonard Cohen – but with a musicality that I don’t have to forgive to enjoy the rich lyric.

    I really invested in Cohen this last year in a way I haven’t ever before and have found such a treasure there, but often the music and his voice have been a barrier for me. Not so with Josh Ritter, and he’s one of the few artists who I think can hold his own against the great lyricists of the last 50 years.

    Grateful that you turned me on to this Andrew.

  13. LauraP

    I find the best things in the Rabbit Room. Back later to absorb this in more detail, but thanks for the great post, AP.

  14. Herschel French

    The supposed “Curse of the Mummy” is that whoever enters the mummy’s tomb shall die, in more words. I believe the song is playing wit that idea, adding a touch of romance and tragedy, and even some jubilation. Great stuff.

  15. Jess

    “The Curse”… I don’t know why I like it. I’m not into mummies, or even pyramids, and I’m not often in love with love songs. But oh my goodness, this song, this song… I can’t explain it. Can anyone explain it? Never mind, I don’t need it explained. It is just beautiful. Pulls on all sorts of heart-strings, and half of the beauty is that I don’t know which ones.

  16. Fellow Traveler

    I woke beneath a clear blue sky
    The sun a shout, the breeze a sigh
    My old hometown and the streets I knew
    Were wrapped up in a royal blue

    That’s real poetry.

  17. euphrony

    I feel I should have mentioned that I’ve loved “Girl in the War” for a while (I know, probably one of his better known songs, but that’s how people find them sometimes, right?). Also, “Wolves” is a pretty good listen.

  18. Du

    Great post Andrew!

    I discovered Josh Ritter about 6 years ago after he released “Hello Starling” (2003). Interestingly enough, this is now my least favorite album of Josh’s.

    I still go back to his debut, “Golden Age of Radio” and one of my favorite songs “Roll On”.

    BTW Andrew, have you ever heard of Gregory Alan Isakov??? If you like Josh Ritter…. : )

  19. thebadactress

    Love this! I feel the same about Josh, though I am not eloquent enough to express it this way. I am a lyric lady too and his astound me. I am going to see him again in Belfast in April, really looking forward to it. I met him once or twice too, he is as lovely as you could imagine.

    Thank you x

  20. Amanda

    Gorgeous. I’ve heard that people love Josh Ritter, but it wasn’t until reading the lyrics of this song while listening to it 3 times that I finally realized his greatness, and whispered “how sad” when the fig of her heart stops beating. A beautiful song, and like Elizabeth K., I think I’m going to buy $30 of music.

  21. Chad Monroe

    One of my favorite songwriters talking about another, yep! I think Heaven is overlapping in this world! Got hooked on Josh about 5 years ago via a Paste Magazine podcast, Met Josh at Grimey’s in Nashville about 3 years ago, he is a funny and genuinely humble guy, seriously you should continue to explore his back catalogue, one of my faves is from “Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” and a song called “Temptation of Adam” it is not really pertaining to the biblical story unless a nuclear silo is a metaphor, but it is great songwriting/storytelling!

  22. Lisa

    I absolutely love Josh Ritter! My all time fav is “The Temptation of Adam”…my husband and I listen to it over and over debating the multiple meanings! Also love “The Curse” (but didn’t realize a video existed…now I have to go check it out!) and “To the Dogs or Whoever”. All of his songs paint such a vivid picture!

  23. Paul Hendrickson

    Thanks for the great post!

    I learned about Josh Ritter last spring listening to an interview on NPR as I drove along on a road trip. After the short interview, he gave a live performance of “The Curse” and I was hooked. The song has such a haunting quality and I’ve loved the unanswered question that lingers at the end of the song. Something about the pulse of the piano seems to go so well with the theme of heartbeats and animation/re-animation, and that pulse comes to an end but not sadly. There’s a real beauty there that I have trouble putting into words.

    So far, I’ve only downloaded “So Runs the World Away” from iTunes, but it sounds like I should look into a couple more albums.

  24. Seth

    Andrew, I think your assessment of the flashback is right on the money. What happens when the curse of the mummy is combined with love at first sight? I think you would have a melancholy mummy who hopes the girl doesn’t figure it out.

  25. julian_jr

    Ah yes! My two favorite songwriters have finally found one another.

    Rather, one now knows the existence of the other. Thanks for the wonderful spotlight, AP. It’s good to see gospel redemption discussed over such talented songwriting.

  26. Jill

    Just realized that Change of Time is on the “Parenthood” (NBC, tuesdays at 10pm) soundtrack! great show, great music….

    ha. never heard of josh ritter until you posted, AP. thanks 🙂

  27. Nathaniel Miller

    I looked up Josh Ritter as soon as I saw AP’s pre-tweet about this article. I was immediately drawn to Lantern, which verifies what AP’s says here. He paints a bleak, bleak picture of this world, one that shows it as the sin-sick begging to be redeemed place it is. He calls out for the lantern to be lit. It so screams for a Savior’s guiding light until he reveals he is merely talking to his lover, that the only book of jubilations will come if they write it for themselves. He comes so close to the truth, only to veer away. I agree with AP – this guy has a great grasp on writing. Here’s hoping he is drawn to God’s redemptive hand.

  28. Fellow Traveler

    I think Rupert Brooke said what Josh is conveying in “Lantern” even better:

    Dear names,
    And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
    Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
    Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
    Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
    Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
    Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
    That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
    And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
    Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
    Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
    And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
    And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; –
    All these have been my loves. And these shall pass,
    Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
    Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
    To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
    They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
    Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
    And sacramented covenant to the dust.
    – Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
    And give what’s left of love again, and make
    New friends, now strangers. . . .
    But the best I’ve known,
    Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
    About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
    Of living men, and dies.
    Nothing remains.

    O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
    This one last gift I give: that after men
    Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,
    Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “He loved.”

    See also Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”

  29. martha

    I’ll add my voice to the litany of those glad to see you discover another talented wordsmith. It’s delightful to hear your excitement, discovering and feeling the same things I thought and felt upon discovering Ritter’s mad skillz. I am all flabbergast!

  30. Benjamin

    I am so grateful for this post AP. So excited that you have found the wonderful world of Mr. Ritter. I found him oddly enough while spending a year in India(2005) and searching for new music that would remind me of home. Josh has been an immediate purchase whenever he releases a new album. One of the better wordsmiths of our time and each album just gets better and better and deeper and deeper. I truly believe Mr. Ritter will find what he is searching for one day.

  31. Benjamin

    Also wanted to a give a shout out to “The Thin Blue Frame”. That song absolutely amazes and intrigues me. I could listen to it over and over, not just for the words, or the music, but the passion in Ritter voice alone just gives that extra appeal.

  32. evie

    So this is part of what makes sharing music with people I love so rewarding: costing them lots and lots of money.

    But seriously, AP, what a perfectly perfect review. I can’t shake the prideful (sinful, really) feeling that I was the one who was fortunate enough to tap a crack in your new-music stronghold. It is certainly fun remembering that day way back in steamy August, and when can you really ever be thankful for a steamy day in August, now tell me? (And for the record, that was Ol’ Black whose seats we were sticking to that day, just a handful of days before she met her demise. sigh.) And ditto on Paul Simon’s Graceland. I remember the cassette tape in mom’s car and still thrill at the way the songs hit me. Now that’s something.

    Jess: I know!! It defies explanation. And still, here we are, trying to pick at it’s core. We do try, don’t we? Art can make us completely mad and wonder-ous, and that’s how I sometimes identify the truest art. The following line makes my head involuntarily shake in disbelief each time I hear it: “And under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart, Under scarab and bone starts back to its beating…”

    Seth: I don’t know that I’ve ever awaited a novel with more tip-toe-dancing anticipation.

    One night I was out alone in the neighborhood, listening to this record for what seemed like the seven-hundredth time, “See How Man Was Made” scraped my heart out of my chest as I walked under an inky summer sky heavy with a powder of stars. Tears ran down my cheeks and onto my shoelaces. Such musical and lyrical richness and purity coexisting…

    Josh Ritter is a phenomenon, leaving a broken mold in his wake. That is all I can surmise.

  33. Sean w/o an H

    Man oh man, this post makes me so happy… my wife is similarly immune to new music, and similarly fell in love w/ Josh Ritter over the past year. He’s quickly risen in the ranks to one of my favorite storytellers, period.

    I agree w/ Andrew… his music is folksy without being locked to folk music conventions, and that’s another aspect of his musicality that’s brilliant. He can go from “The Temptation of Adam” and “Wings” (easily in my top 5 songs of his) to tracks like “The Remnant” or “Rumors” and still remain engaging… that’s a rare talent.

  34. Danielle

    What a song! Those lyrics are so beautifully crafted. Thanks for the introduction!

    In answer to AP’s survey in the comments, here are my two cents:

    I think he wishes she’d forget the question because the curse is that she dies- not in the sense of the original “mummy-tomb-curse” that comes upon the excavators for opening the tomb, but in the sense that at the end of it all, he’s still there and she is dead. His curse, then, is watching the woman with whom he’s fallen in love die.

    For my money, it’s a play on the myth of the mummy’s curse with the potential for heartbreak that is inherent in loving another person.

  35. Chris Slaten

    I’m pretty new to Ritter, so I’ve been listening to So Runs the World Away, particularly those two songs, on repeat since Christmas. One of my favorite things about the lines you quoted from Another New World is the icy instrumentation that seems to change with the scenery. I love the sound of that record in general.

    I’ve been wondering how it is that I could keep listening to those two stories over and over. While much of it is in how it tells it, more of it is in what is being expressed through the story. Sometimes a story itself, like a melody, can express what the actual words can’t. The story of “The Curse” evokes a very specific type of heartbreak, as Danielle put it, that feels very ancient, eerie, and swallowed up by time. Trying to put it directly words would move us away from the thing itself.

    Sometimes I feel like it is so easy for Christian storytellers to fall in the rut of seeing art only as ministry when it is concerned with illustrating sound theology or evangelizing directly or indirectly. We take our savior complexes into art forgetting that expression itself can be a form servitude. I’ve taught a seventh grade student who reads on the level of a freshman in college, but writes and speaks at an elementary school level. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be? So many of us have so much that we comprehend and so little that we can express. Isn’t it like a cup of cool water when we read a story that, like a bizarre dream, gives our confusion a shape and signals that someone else knows the unnamable?

    All of that to say, “Thank you, Mr. Ritter, for serving us.” I would love to see more Christians serve with stories in this same humble, unique way.

  36. Jess

    I agree with Danielle about the curse. That is the way the song felt to me–the passing of time and its indifference. 🙂

  37. Brian

    A friend of mine loaned me The Animal Years two years ago and I loved it. Not enough to go out and spend money on it, but I was inspired to write a song that barely attempted to be as poetic as Ritter (http://www.brianwest.com/node/248). I kind of forgot about his music, though, until about six months ago, when I ran across a story about him. Excited, I pulled up the lyrics to Girl in the War, and a live performance of it on YouTube, and shared it with my very down-to-earth wife.

    She didn’t get it. It really didn’t do anything for her. She couldn’t really understand even what the song was supposed to be about. And, though I tried, I couldn’t quite describe it well either.

    Separately, as I’ve attended the monthly local NSAI workshop, my fellow local songwriters have similarly dissuaded any of my attempts to write songs that are more poetic, or whose meanings can’t be fully grasped during the first listen. The goal is getting a song cut by a performer, getting on the radio, and you only get one chance for people to get hooked on your song, so Don’t make the meaning of your song very obscure. Now, granted, maybe what I was sharing with them was just unskillful, and not just too poetic.

    My point in these stories is, where is the support for us to attempt to write like Ritter (Ritter the writer?)? If (as seemed to be the cry of many who went to Hutchmoot) we don’t live near/among many artistically-minded people, but instead among who like their art simple and direct, not poetic and wordsmith-y, it’s rather difficult to get support for branching out in that more-poetic direction. The people I’ve worked with locally haven’t been able to distinguish for me whether my poetic attempts were artfully obscure, or just poorly-done-obscure.

    So, who’s up for creating a songwriter support group via Skype? 🙂

  38. Fellow Traveler

    Brian, I would submit that it’s good to walk a line between kitschy and formulaic on the one hand and overly artsy on the other.

    I’ve personally been influenced by Twila Paris, because I always think she did a good job of keeping that balance. Her stuff was always thoughtful and thought-provoking, but I never got that “I’m obscure and cool and I dare you to figure out what I’m talking about, nyah, nyah, nyah,” feeling.

    However, if we want to say that Twila walked that balance while staying on the “pop side” of the line, we could say that our Proprietor walks that balance on the more folksy side. But regardless, that balance is good to have.

  39. Jess

    Brian: I’ve always been one for the deep stuff with good words and different-angled meanings (I’ll hear a catchy song on the radio, get the CD, and find the deeper and what I consider better songs and wonder why the radio doesn’t play awesome stuff like that). But it definitely has to be combined with great skill or it just comes across as someone trying very very hard to do something that they just can’t do yet. Also, sometimes something very deep can be conveyed with very simple words and tunes. It all depends… My lowly advice would be to find the place where you can FEEL the meaning the most as you write it, and write in that place. The “place” as in the style of writing. It’s different for everyone (thank goodness, or everyone would be depressed because they had no rest from the deep meanings of life). 😉

  40. Fellow Traveler

    Radio seems to have a knack for picking the worst songs off of a given album (“Dancing in the Minefields” being a happy exception of course).

  41. Charles

    Good post–I’ve been a fan of “Bone of Song” for a time, though I’ll have to check out this “Curse”: truly brilliant lyric-crafting.

    However, I find it funny the ways evangelicals in America often rush to conclude that just because a writer doesn’t hit the reader/listener over the head with orthodox ‘gospel’ messages, the writer is most likely ‘lost’ (whatever this means), or is ‘missing the total truth.’ This brings to my mind something Mullins once said: ‘I’ve gone to live among the Navajo because I’ve come to believe that I’m more likely to find Christ among them than among middle-class evangelical Christian America.’ To be sure, Mullins was being provocative here, but the point remains: sometimes the, one might say, over the top profession of Christ in songs in the Christian music industry limits the amount of substance one can pour into a song (putting Christ inside a box), causing the ‘language of Christ’ to hide the substance of Christ, causing most ‘Christian’ songs to read like simple bible-tracts.

    No offense meant in any of this, just an observation.

  42. Fellow Traveler

    I guess it all depends on what you mean by not “hitting people over the head with ‘orthodox gospel messages.’ ”

    Are we talking about a touching country song that tells a moving story about family without mentioning Christ? Are we talking about artsy folk e.g. Ritter? Are we talking about stuff that’s downright weird/inappropriate?

    I’ve never had a problem with songs that don’t mention God by name, and I don’t have a problem with artists who are probing, asking questions, groping for truth, etc., even if there is a real sense in which they don’t have “the whole truth.” At the same time (and hopefully most folks here do the same), I do filter what I listen to so that I’m not just taking in junk.

    I also don’t think that it’s judgmental to say that somebody like Ritter is still, to an extent, “lost.” He may have found parts of the puzzle, but until he puts it all together, he hasn’t been found yet. Of course that’s where we all started, but looking back now we wouldn’t say that we were anything but lost then.

  43. euphrony

    Traveler, my impression from what Charles was saying was of people who literally count Christian jargon in a song or book (how many times do they mention God’s name, the cross, salvation through God, etc.) and grade it on some standard of theirs to decide if it is “of Christ” or not – implying that it is of the world and the devil. I stumbled on this example a few years ago, and it took me 10 seconds to find again by Google searching “Marcyme devil” to reference here. I’ve been pointed to similar websites about my church, and seen this too frequently to totally disregard. Some people, perhaps in loving ways and perhaps in a mean spirit, cannot see God in art unless it employs a club to their noggin.

    Of course, there are probably as many people out there who want to find God in everything and make it holy. Which, under several examples, can range from funny to ludicrous to blasphemous. An example here is “Particle Man” by They Might be Giants (a guilty pleasure of mine), which many people try to relate to God, the church, and man despite TMBG repeatedly saying that it is just a nonsensical song.

    All that to say, from my perspective, that the artist’s intent has a lot to say as to how spiritually it should be interpreted.

  44. Fellow Traveler

    Agreed.

    For that matter, someone could comb through Shakespeare and throw it away because it didn’t reflect a “biblically correct worldview…”

  45. Jess

    Oh. My. Gosh. Euphrony, I read that post on MercyMe. That is like… like… I don’t know. But I do know that that is the worst thing I have ever read in my life. Ever.

  46. Jess

    Or just a whole bunch of people who think the same way. What a nightmare. Anyway, I wanted to add that yesterday my heart practically burst because I listened to so much good music, including Josh Ritter, thanks to AP, and Thad Cockrell, thanks to JR. And I topped it off with some Andrew Peterson. Can I ask a question? Does anyone else feel raindrops on their skin, smell the rain and thunder in the air, and hear it pattering on the ground whenever they listen to “The Reckoning”? And I can feel the splashes and squishes of puddle-jumping when I hear “All the Way Home”, too. I think I am going crazy.

  47. Fellow Traveler

    I think I could if I tried. I can’t listen to “The Reckoning” while doing anything else. It demands my full concentration. But it’s worth it.

  48. Jack Freeman

    My wife and I saw Josh Ritter in Spokane in November and I have to admit that although I love his music, I was a bit leary of seeing him perform. I was worried that a cynical atheist would come out and burn me with his Thin Blue Flame. To my great delight, I found him to be a super nice, upbeat, and energetic performer. Just like his lyrics, I found him to be down to earth yet coy. Thank you Andrew for a very interesting post.

  49. codyvilla

    Thanks AP! I would have guessed you for a Ritter fan!

    Josh Ritter recordings are only rivaled by his live show. His band is AMAZING. I’ve seen a lot of shows, and no offense to any RRer’s, but I’ve seen Josh twice and both shows were two of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I think what makes it so great is his stage presence – he is like a 12 year old boy about to play his songs for the first time, and he is overwhelmed with joy as he plays them. And you can’t help but laugh with him.

    My favorite Ritter song might be The Temptation of Adam, where two people fall in love in a nuclear bomb shelter, not knowing whether or not they are the last two humans alive. My favorite stanza:

    We could hold each other close and stay up every night
    Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
    And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
    And carve our name in hearts into the warhead

    The man is a GENIUS.

  50. Fellow Traveler

    I think the idea of “Adam” is to show the potential evil inherent in passionate love. At the end of the song, the singer is “tempted” to launch the warhead and essentially destroy the planet so that he and his girlfriend can be in the shelter forever without having to surface and potentially lose their relationship.

  51. Rob

    On a somewhat unrelated note, I heard “Dancing in the Minefields” on the radio today. The DJ followed it up by saying it was a brand new artist named Andrew Peterson and they can’t wait to hear more of him. Cracked me up!

  52. David Van Buskirk

    I’m glad that someone mentioned ‘Temptation of Adam” off of Historical conquests.

    I am blown away by that song. That someone has so skillfully blended the fall of man, the cold war and nuclear chemistry, into a love song.

    “We passed the time with crosswords that she thought bring inside.
    What five letters spell apocalypse she asked me.
    I won her over singing W.W.I.I.I.
    She smiled and we both knew that she’d misjudged me.

    Then one night you found me in my army issue cot
    And you told me of your flash of inspiration
    You said fusion was the broken heart that’s lonely’s only thought
    And all night long you drove me wild with your equations

    Oh Marie do you remember all the time we used to take
    We’d make our love and then ransack the rations
    I think about you leaving now and the avalanche cascades
    And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions

    Oh Marie there’s something tells me things just won’t work out above
    That our love would live a half-life on the surface
    So at night while you are sleeping
    I hold you closer just because
    As our time grows short I get a little nervous

    I think about the Big One, W.W.I.I.I.
    Would we ever really care the world had ended
    You could hold me here forever like you’re holding me tonight
    I look at that great big red button and I’m tempted.”

  53. Fellow Traveler

    What’s unusual about that song is that while most secular artists would portray love as universally good, Ritter shows its darker side as well–he shows it as a temptation. Quite interesting.

  54. abigail

    Hey all! A little help, please! I am on a fun 19 hour road trip with an awesome couple who has five kids under the age of 7. All we listen to is kids songs, so The Slugs and Bugs album is stuck in our heads, but not in it’s entirety. Does anybody know where I can get the lyrics to the Ninja song by tomorrow morning (when we head back home)? We keep singing it to random strangers, but we really want to flash mob the whole thing.

  55. AMonstet

    I just became acquainted with the music of Josh Ritter(why am I so late?) The Curse. When he tells her he thinks he’s cured, he’s not lying. He doesn’t tell her the whole truth — that the curse has transferred to her and that is what cured him. What I wonder is how he answered her on the street that day he walked out. I think he may have finally told the full truth. That day he was emboldened — he had the balls to get up and walk out that day. But after that day I think he never did again. I think she suspected it — she’s a smart woman, after all.

  56. Sarah

    Adore Josh Ritter. I bought his song book and started singing a few of his songs in my voice lessons.

    Anyone know what Harrisburg is about?

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