Josh Ritter

Girl In The WarThe Animal Years
WolvesThe Animal Years
Right MovesThe Historical Conquests...
To The Dogs Or WhoeverThe Historical Conquests...
New LoverThe Beast In Its Tracks
BonfireThe Beast In Its Tracks
Getting Ready To Get DownSermon On The Rocks
Where The Night GoesSermon On The Rocks
Time Is WastingSee Here, I Have Built You A Mansion

Josh Ritter photo 1

Josh Ritter (photo: Marcelo Biglia)



Josh Ritter playlist



Contributor: Marc Fagel

Idaho-born Josh Ritter entered the music scene in the late 90s as a folk and Americana singer steeped in traditional music. After a few relatively understated releases, he gradually evolved into an unusually thoughtful and varied singer-songwriter whose lyrical gifts evoke Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, while his increasingly well-rounded heartland pop conjures those artists alongside Bob Seger and classic 70s-era Fleetwood Mac. Though generally operating outside the musical mainstream, Ritter deserves a perch alongside Laurel Canyon golden-age singer-songwriter legends and more modern artists from Freedy Johnston to Jeff Tweedy.

His 1999 self-titled debut was an inauspicious start, a largely acoustic stripped-down folk record – a respectable evocation of Dylan and Guthrie but not really hinting at Ritter’s songwriting prowess. The two that followed, 2002’s Golden Age Of Radio and 2003’s Hello Starling, remained rooted in folk and Americana traditions, while becoming more musically polished. Songs like the former’s title track and the latter’s Man Burning and Snow Is Gone were more fully-realized compositions, while Starling’s Bright Smile revealed a knack for truly gorgeous ballads.

2006’s The Animal Years, while not breaking from its two predecessors, adds just a bit more punch, still largely pretty and soft-spoken but actually rocking out in places (just a bit). The hushed, vaguely anti-war ballad Girl In The War is a work of transcendent beauty, a stunning tune with evocative lyrics (“her eyes are like champagne – they sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is the rain”); while Wolves evidences growing comfort with more upbeat pop-rock songs. Other stand-outs like Good Man and Lillian, Egypt meet in the middle, modest yet catchy folk rock.

If Animal Years saw Ritter dipping a toe into a mainstream-friendly pop sound, he went all-in with the follow-up, 2007’s The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter. His most consistent and radio-ready record to date, it offered a number of delightfully catchy tracks that felt equally drawn from 70s classic rock radio and post-Wilco indie Americana. Right Moves is the perfect encapsulation of the leap forward, at once immediately recognizable but with a truly fresh spin, its chorus (with a rollicking piano lick abetted by a rousing horn section) coming across like something you might have heard before but can’t quite put your finger on. To The Dogs Or Whoever highlights Ritter’s Dylan-influenced lyrical rush and casual drawl, but again tethered to sing-along pop. Mind’s Eye and Open Doors further establish Ritter’s facility in blending his deeply lyrical roots with a listener-friendly sound.


When he returned three years later with So Runs The World Away, Ritter cast aside some of the obvious pop nods of the prior record. It’s a more introspective, lyrically-focused record that firmly clinches Ritter as the heir apparent to Paul Simon. It’s frequently lovely, closing with the (almost) rocking Orbital and the stripped-down folk of Long Shadows, but lends itself a little less to a punchy mixtape.

2013’s The Beast In Its Tracks continued in a similar vein, another more ballad-oriented work. It was apparently Ritter’s divorce album, his Blood On The Tracks, and there is a sadness (or at times anger) underlying the searing lyrics. He turned up the volume the slightest bit for the wickedly insistent New Lover, a devastating break-up song whose lyrical punch is backed by one of Ritter’s most melodic turns to date. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a closing couplet better than this:

I hope you’ve got a lover now, hope you’ve got somebody who
Can give you what you need like I couldn’t seem to do.
But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you’ve got nobody true,
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too.

Meanwhile, the wispy, finger-picked Bonfire takes a gentler stab at similar lyrical and musical themes.


After a couple albums of lyrically rich but musically restrained tunes, Ritter turned up the volume again for 2015’s excellent Sermon On The Rocks. Moving beyond the personal heartbreak of the predecessor, this one finds Ritter turning his attention to that old time religion, a rootsy Bible Belt proclamation that adds some rock, blues, and gospel into the musical stew. The obvious stand-out, and arguably Ritter’s finest moment, is the perky, upbeat Getting Ready To Get Down, a whimsical celebration of the town’s rebellious bad girl, the world of Footloose distilled to a three-minute mad rush of wicked wordsmithery. “Mama got a look at you and got a little worried. Papa got a look at you and got a little worried. Pastor got a look and said y’all had better hurry, send her off to a little bible college in Missouri.” Which doesn’t quite work out as planned. Elsewhere, Where The Night Goes is hopelessly infectious piano-based pop reprising Historical Conquests’ Right Moves, and other rocking numbers like the delightful Cumberland and A Big Enough Sky infuse Ritter’s thoughtful tunes with riveting energy.


2017’s Gathering pretty much picks up where Sermon left off, an exploration of similar themes again unafraid to preach the gospel. A more downbeat record with some particularly quiet moments, Ritter wakes things up on the fun little stomp Friendamine; while my fellow Grateful Dead fans might perk up for the Bob Weir duet When Will I Be Changed.

His most recent album of original work, 2019’s Fever Breaks, comes across like a reliably enjoyable record from a seasoned veteran. It’s dominated by ballads, intermittently broken up by a rocker like Old Black Magic or Losing Battles.

Since then, his output has been limited to a short collection of leftovers, See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion, which turns out to be surprisingly solid, and the upbeat romp Time Is Wasting, while similar to some of his previous rockers, deserves better than being relegated to an outtake.



Official Josh Ritter website

Josh Ritter (Wikipedia)

NYTimes feature (2021)

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All
A novel by Josh Ritter (Hanover Square Press 2021)

Bright’s Passage
A novel by Josh Ritter (Dial Press 2012)

Josh Ritter biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include The Hold Steady, Game Theory, The Reivers, The Shazam, Guided by Voices, The Connells, Big Audio Dynamite, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

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