Josh Ritter's The Animal Years, the fourth record from the Moscow, Idaho-bred singer-songwriter, is the best album from an under-30 guy-with-guitar that has been released in 2006. All 11 tracks cry for understanding, revealing Ritter as a consummate narrator painting stories with metaphor and casting them on an ontologically framed canvas.
Ritter alternately likens loneliness to a cave darkened by an erstwhile guide and names a girl worthy of swooning as the banker's daughter he swiped like Fort Knox gold. Critics, though, laud Ritter's new political bent: In truth, only two cuts from The Animal Years make more than a passing reference to the war that's been at the fore of America's political conscience since before he released his 2002 semi-breakthrough, Golden Age of Radio. Those two songs, though--"Girl in the War," the closer, a dialogue between saints Peter and Paul about Peter's soldier girlfriend, and "Thin Blue Flame," a nine-minute epic casting faith as both the world's most important salve and slaveholder with two pulsing chords--turn this great pop album into one of the most powerful sociopolitical statements from any artist since Sept. 11, 2001.
It's significant that almost 90 percent of The Animal Years' tracks don't mention international conflict. Of necessity, the past five years have been primarily about living, and, secondly, about reacting to the imbalance around us. Unlike most talking heads on either end of the political axis, Ritter realizes that activism only breathes in the presence of pragmatism. Most songs here are love-and-life songs, testaments to very simple, very personal, very human survival.
But when Ritter has something to say, he balances eloquence with force. The patient ascendance of "Thin Blue Flame" from a slightly nervous, major-chord folk song into a cacophonous anthem for drums, piano and fuzzy guitar says it all. The first of five verses is simply electric guitar and voice, Ritter starting easy and slow, steadily gathering his thoughts into a nervous agitation by verse's end: "I looked over curtains and it was then that I knew/ Only a full house gonna make it through." It's clear what Ritter sees as essential for hope: A whole country--or world--pulling together in peacetime.
Verse two raises the piano and quickens Ritter's spiral into nervousness: By the time he sings "He bent down and made the world in seven days/ And ever since, he's been a'walking away" 30 seconds in, he sounds like a wreck too calm for his own good. The exhausting third verse empowers the apocalyptic climax, a dreaming Ritter floating above heaven, disgusted with that Royal City's combination of opulent nobles and neglected citizens. Ritter's exasperation peaks just as drums climb in, the words "It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/ It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart" throwing the gauntlet. His metaphors cascade in waves, juxtaposing references to sanctified missiles and vengeful wolves howling from wartime psalteries. The verse's culmination sees the earth split, the world's collective aspirations cleaved from his brow: "In darkness he looks for the light that has died/ But you need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find/ And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck/ And like good tragedy that's what we expect."
The nightmare of terror, all too real, finally breaks, and Ritter makes plans for his post-apocalyptic paradise in the triumphant fourth verse, just before waking up in verse five to the sunny streets of his hometown for the dénouement: It's a halcyon vision of the world when its people--left or right, white or brown--have resurrected themselves by collecting themselves.
"How can you do such disservice to someone's religion by turning it into a weapon and saying, 'This is your religious obligation?'" Ritter says rather politely from home. "When I see people blowing themselves up in buses or people in our country claiming that we're fighting for Jesus Christ and freedom, they're both extremists. In the same way a suicide bomber does huge disservice to Allah or Islam, we're doing a huge disservice to Christianity by invoking it in a war."
Sure, Josh Ritter looks like the most milquetoast musician one can imagine, a mop of red hair and the casual beginnings of a beard shaping his face like a 29-year-old grocery boy. He's as kind as Sunday lunch in the Heartland. He's the sort of docile good boy that only speaks when he needs to. And when he needs people to listen so that we may all live a bit better.
Josh Ritter plays the Cat's Cradle Monday, July 24 with The Proclivities and Slow Runner at 9:15 p.m. Tickets are $10.