As an author, painter, and singer-songwriter, Josh Ritter must see life through a creative lens that constantly refocuses reality into art. Starting from a self-described “exciting sense of dissatisfaction,” Ritter desired to expand his style outside of the expectations he, and others, held over his songwriting. Embracing internal unrest as his muse, Ritter puts forth his upcoming album, Gathering, via Pytheas Recordings and Thirty Tigers on September 22nd.
Through a diverse 13-song track list, Ritter proves adept at capturing the undercurrents of reality, and then deftly twisting our sonic expectations. Full of propped-up bluster and bravado, your mind easily places Ritter as the “guy who never cries” on the album’s first single, “Showboat.” With lively organ, lush horns, and an infectious up-tempo beat, the charade challenges our perceptions of strength while employing relatable, buried sadness. More delicate organ and contemplative guitar greets us on “When Will I Be Changed,” a track featuring the vocals and guitar work of Bob Weir. With a tender melody reminiscent of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” one could easily mistake the dark lyrics as optimistic. Instead, the gentle song presents a down and out, dirt-stained soul that cannot find redemption—and one who may not really be looking for it. The song wedges into your mind and digs into the pit of your stomach, as what your ears hear and your heart feels are thrown into conflict.
After experiencing the emotional charge through the first several songs, I was still not prepared for the dynamic right hook that Ritter lands with “Dreams.” Starting from barely sung vocals-almost the spoken word of a poetry slam-the song builds while Ritter lashes out, and ominous strings, sawing scratches of guitar, and jolts of piano are added to the fray. “Why don’t anything give me the joy that it used to/why don’t anything feel as real as it once was,” he muses. As the fury builds, vocals turn to a growl, bringing to mind a collision of the lyrical darkness of Nick Cave crashing into the chaos of Tom Waits.
Whether taking mercy on his listeners’ emotional souls or simply wanting to end on the sentimental, album closer “Strangers” embraces everything gentle that should be part of a true love song. Hazily strummed guitar, dusty drums, and wispy synthesizer cause thoughts to drift to a lovers’ escape where cares are put on hold. It’s a delightful love song on its own, but also serves as a gentle landing from the rest of the album’s whirlwind.
For Gathering, Josh Ritter shunned expectations and valiantly forged through the shadows lurking in his creative soul. While finding some interludes of loving respite, Ritter cast a light into his darkest corners, revealing smoldering torments that build to a raging fire.
[Purchase Gathering, out September 22nd via Pytheas Recordings and Thirty Tigers HERE.]