The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter catches the Idaho musician in the midst of a radical transformation. While last year's The Animal Years had Ritter thinking about the state of the nation, his latest offering finds him pining for Joan of Arc, Calamity Jane and Florence Nightingale, all of whom seem to be stuck together in the belly of a whale, a la Jonah. He also manages to squeeze in a few admiring words about ladiesı underwearand thatıs well before Ritter, backed by drums, bass and organ and cacophony, arrives at a rollicking chorus you might be able sing along with if youıre quick enough to get all the words.
Ritter is clearly having funand you will, toobut there is a method to his madness. Those legendary heroines he name-checks were each responding to an inner voice that pushed them toward some extraordinary mission, one both noble and a little foolhardy. "Those voices can be pretty confusing," he says, "but there is no doubt that if you follow your two a.m. voices youıll end up someplace fairly extraordinary."
And Ritter did follow those late night voices. While The Animal Years was a meticulously crafted and stately paean, for Conquests the artist radically revamped his working methods and his sound. "I needed to be somebody different," the singer says. "The air of gravitas around me was getting oppressive. For some reason it seemed like there was a premium being placed on earnestness and that can be pretty stifling. There was a lot of talk about true love and righteous indignation. I wanted to write about gunslingers and missile silos."
But it didnıt start like that. "I was tired of writing with the guitar," says Ritter, who began writing The Historical Conquests by committing to tape wordless tunes and melodic fragments, certain that the lyrics and thematic ideas, whatever shape they might take, would soon follow. Setting aside the guitar, he began writing on an upright piano some family friends had given himan instrument, he admits, he didnıt actually know how to play.
The result is an often raucous, occasionally dizzying affair, with pounding keyboards, strings, horns, and his new producer and long-time collaborator Sam Kassirer, leading the charge. About the recording conditions in the Maine farmhouse where the record was made, Ritter enthuses, "You should have seen it up there. It was January and twenty below. We had horns in the attic, we had strings in the barn, we had a gaggle of people shooting targets with bb guns in the woods. It was a full house and everyone was there to throw themselves at the music. There was no holding back."
As he says in the drum and Steinway-driven "Rumors,"
My orchestra is gigantic.
This thing could sink the Titanic
And the string sectionıs screaming
Like horses in a barn burning up.
Giving the project a literal go-for-broke feel was the fact that his then-label, V2 America, had just fired the entire staff. "They went under the night we performed on Letterman!," laughs the songwriter. "It seemed me and my band were pretty much storming the heights of irony that day." The situation emboldened the self-reliant artist; after all, Ritter had launched his career DIY-fashion with his self-titled 1999 debut and released its 2001 follow-up, The Golden Age of Radio, on his own, before finally signing with an indie label. When he rushed back into the studio in early ı07, after another year of worldwide touring, it was on his own timetable. "One thing Iıve realized is that at the end of the day, youıre on your own. There isnıt a song, a record or a record label that can teach you how to swim or how to keep your head above water," Ritter says. "You have to be the one getting out of the boat and taking your chances every day. In what you write and in how you play. If not"
The artistic leaps Josh Ritter displays on Conquests are not without their stepping-stones, however. On a conceptual level, Paul McCartneyıs Ram served as an ever-present reminder to enjoy the process of writing. Ritter was attracted to the free-spirited quality of the solo album McCartney made at his own farmhouseamidst the Beatlesı tumultuous breakup: "It sounded like he had something to prove, but also like he didnıt really care. In terms of my favorite records, Ram is more about the philosophy. If this guy can do this after what he came through, then, okay, maybe I could try something like this too. It really loosened me up."
Stepping farther back, he sites Buddy Hollyıs apocryphal The Apartment Tapes as a major influence. "A friend passed me Buddy Hollyıs Apartment Tapes. The tapes are plain and genius. Buddy sang Learning the Gameı and Thatıs What they Sayı in his apartment in New York City and you can hear his wife bumping around in the kitchen and the whole thing feels clear but not simple. Those recordings feel like a Raymond Carver story. I listen to him and remember that it doesnıt have to be all nine-minute songs. That guy can get more across in a couplet than some people are lucky to learn in their whole life."
With a new approach, a new producer and a new location, Ritter got underway in earnest. "I shaped the songs and recorded a basic shell with Sam and then asked my bassist Zack Hickman and my new drummer Liam Hurley to come on up." Skeleton tracks in hand, Ritter collaborated further with his band mates and a group of assorted musician friends he dubbed The Great North Sound Society Orchestra, who were clearly up for trying anything.
The results speak for themselves. The upbeat, vintage "Right Moves," the Liberty Valance standoff "Mindıs Eye," the pre-(and possibly post-) apocalyptic love song "The Temptation of Adam" and the Robert Altman era "Next to the Last" combine to hold a kind of punk-meets-Peckinpah fiesta.
Says Ritter in summary, "On my last disc, The Animal Years, I went pretty deep inside the gears of what I do. I knew where the words fit and how the songs dovetailed with each other." He adds, however, "If I hadnıt approached the writing that record on such a clockmakerıs level, I may not have decided to step back and try shooting the clock to pieces on Historical Conquests. Iım glad we did though," he adds. "I wanted to blow something up."
Given the new lyrical and musical trails that he is blazing, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter proves that one can still cross any number of Rubicons all the while not taking themselves too seriously. Historic indeed.