Album Review | Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

Photo by Agatha Donkar

(If this seems familiar, it first appeared on my personal blog on 3/4/13.)

I am in awe of Josh Ritter; I have been for many years, because he’s the most literate songwriter working today, and he’s funny and awkward and genius, and he’s probably sincerely a complete charming weirdo, and he smiles on stage like he loves his job better than anybody else in the world. His albums are beautiful and stark and warm and clever and catchy; every release has ten or twenty or fifty lines that are quotable beyond belief. Every record he releases surprises me more than the one before it.

The Beast In Its Tracks is no exception to that rule, except for how it is even more spectacular than the others, as it was written and recorded in the fierce grief of the breakup of Ritter’s marriage. Not only that, but that he has been so honest about the fact that yes, this is the subject of this record: my marriage, and how it fell apart, and how I fell apart, and how I moved on, and how I hope you’ve moved on, too. It is, quite frankly, maybe the most beautiful and raw breakup record I have ever heard. I have listened to it endlessly in the last month — yes, I have been lucky enough to have it that long, and I know that I am spoiled, yes, yes, yes, spoiled and lucky beyond belief — and every time a different line has punched me in the chest with its power and truth. 

I cried the first time I listened to “Joy To You Baby”, the day that Josh announced the new record; I cried the first time I heard “New Lover” on All Songs Considered (and, in fact, I think the first time I heard it in November 2011, when Josh was doing the solo tour with Zach and playing it). And the first time I listened to the whole record, during “Hopeful”, I made one of my trademark hugely embarrassing sobbing honks and burst into tears at my desk, over a single line: and the whole world stopped spinning and just went up in flames. It’s not just the line, in that song, it’s the pattered staccato delivery of the lyrics, the contradiction of grief and darkness with hope, the verses that are the story of loss, the choruses the story of how we stand up and stand taller from loss. The way he half stutters, half speaks, half sings the words, it’s the vocal representation of that staggering around that we do after loss. That Josh Ritter could convey that not just in words, but in the way he says those words, that idea and execution blinds me with love for him.

(And honestly, could anyone in the world get away with the line still it beggars the belief sometimes what thieves we lovers be but Josh Ritter? I can’t even get away with saying “it beggars the belief” in real life.)

 I think that one of the things that fascinates me most about this album is the way that Ritter uses “she” and “you”; she is the new lover, and you is the lover he has left, or been left by. but she didn’t have your arms, he sings in opener “Third Arm”; she only looks like you in a certain kind of light, from “A Certain Light”. These are the things we say to ourselves when we’re brokenhearted, even as we say something else out loud. It distances him from the new person, it makes the old lover closer, 2nd person instead of 3rd person. “You” will always be closer than “she” or “he”. These are the secret things we keep from new lovers. These are the cruel and sad and sometimes shameful and always truthful things everyone thinks after a break up. The kind of thing that we pretend we don’t think, the kind of lyrics that you hear in a song and say, that’s how I feel, even if you only say it to yourself; even if the cruelty and ragged unhappiness and missing is only in your own heart and head. Even “New Lover”, a paean to finding someone else and moving on, is the sort of dig anyone, not just a genius poet, might make at an old lover:

i got a new lover now, she knows just what i need 
when i wake up in the night, she can read me back my dreams 
and she loves them, though she never needs to tell me what they mean 

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 

 That’s exactly how I feel after I leave someone, or I am left — eventually I am happy, and I hope you are happy too, and well, if you’re not, you were an asshole and I’m glad you’re miserable.

And of course, The Beast In Its Tracks has the penultimate benediction of “Joy To You Baby”, a song that moves me like little else has in the last two years:

there’s pain in whatever we stumble upon 
if i never had met you you couldn’t have gone 
but then i couldn’t have met you and we couldn’t have been 
i guess it all adds up to joy to the end

I have resolved to be happy every New Year’s for the last few years; some years it works better than others, but this song is my battle call for 2013, and this album is the album of my heartbeat. Joy to you, baby, and joy to me, too. Josh Ritter knows from joy; he knows it every time he stands on stage and sings with his arms open and his smile wide. I saw him perform while his marriage was ending. I saw him perform while he was writing this songs of gut-wrenching ache. I saw him perform “New Lover” when it was a fresh and strange song to all of us who sang back every other word to him that same night. He stood on stage every time and was joyful. He says the he is proud of this record, and I do not doubt that he should be: it is a masterpiece of human emotion, his own singular experience distilled and spilled outward to be the experiences of all of us.

Every time he releases a new record, more people that I know and many that I don’t fall in love with Josh Ritter; I am envious every time, because it means that besides these 13 songs, all those people have all of his other beautiful records to find for the first time. I remember the first time that I heard “Kathleen”, and I remember that it stopped my heart. (It still stops my heart. all the other girls here are stars, and you are the northern lights is the single most romantic lyric in the history of the world, the end.) I am always jealous of people just discovering Josh, but I am particularly jealous of those finding him through The Beast In Its Tracks, because it is, in fact, his finest work. Congratulations, Mr. Ritter. You’ve written a showstopper.

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