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Why I Can’t Stop Listening to Josh Ritter

I’m obsessing over the music of Josh Ritter. Last year, Pete and I met Evie Coates at the coffee shop to talk about Hutchmoot 2010. We talked about the program, the menu, the number of forks we needed, then we drove over to Church of the Redeemer so Evie could check out the kitchen. I rode in her fabled old red truck and she asked if I had ever heard of Josh Ritter. When I said no she looked at me like I should be ashamed of myself, then she played me a song called “Another New World” from Ritter’s new album So Runs the World Away. I was mesmerized.

The song was about this Ernest Shackleton-type captain, an adventurer who musters a crew to voyage with him to the frozen north because he believes a new world lay hidden, waiting “for whoever can break through the ice”. Ritter’s voice was both intense and easy on the ears, the story the song told was haunting and sad and mysterious, and I wanted to hear it again. And again. But at that point we pulled into the church and planned Hutchmoot instead.

Later that day she texted me the two songs I should buy from that album in case I was still wary of getting the whole thing: “Another New World” and one called “The Curse”. I forked my $1.98 over to iTunes and listened to the songs a few times, then one night on the road Ben and I watched the music video for “The Curse”, at which point I realized that–get this–the song was about a mummy who falls in love with the archaeologist who discovers him.

And with that, ladies and germs, I was in.

I bought the album and listened to it about thirty times, marveling, above all, at Ritter’s lyrics and the stories he tells. If you know me at all, you know I’m a word nerd. I love to read a book in which I can sense the author’s love affair with the tools of his trade. I want to marvel not just at good stories, but good sentences. So I geeked out when I heard Josh Ritter sing these lines (from his tale of the voyage of the Annabel Lee):

After that it got colder, and the world got quiet, It was never quite day or quite night. And the sea turned the color of sky Turned the color of sea turned the color of ice. After that all around us was fastness, One vast glassy desert of arsenic white, And the waves that once lifted us, Shifted instead into drifts against Annabel’s sides.

Now, before you read on, do yourself a favor and read that lyric again. Read it aloud. If you’re at work, cover your mouth and whisper it to yourself (that’s what I do at Starbucks). That, my friends, is the work of a ninja. That’s the kind of evocative, alliterative, narrative, imaginative, roll-off-the-tongue writing I dream about.

Evie has now cost me about thirty bucks, because I’ve since bought Ben Shive So Runs the World Away, and bought myself The Animal Years, Ritter’s previous album, as well as In the Dark: Live at Vicar Street, recorded in Dublin. And that’s rare for me. I just don’t do that. I usually get into a new artist like I get into a cold swimming pool. I’m the guy who orders the same thing at the restaurant every time, not because I’m picky but because when I find something I like I stick to it. If you looked at my iTunes library you’d still see (other than the Square Peg Alliance) mostly Rich Mullins, Marc Cohn, and James Taylor, the three dudes I cut my songwriting teeth on. I just don’t get into new artists easily.

That’s why I was excited to discover Josh Ritter. Not only do I love the sound, I love that he’s telling me something, and I get the sense that, whatever it is, he believes it–or at least, he’s willing to ask good questions about his doubts. His songs are rife with Biblical references (enough to make me wonder if he grew up in the church), as well as literary ones, though it’s hard to know exactly where he’s coming from, spiritually. I get the feeling sometimes that he’s mad at the God he doesn’t think exists.

Here’s a line from a 9-minute epic from The Animal Years called “Thin Blue Flame”, a song I can’t get enough of:

If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room The heavenly hosts are just the cold dark moons He bent down and made the world in seven days And ever since he’s been a-walking away

It’s a bitter and misinformed depiction of God. (The Gospel is basically the exact opposite of what he claims here. God made the world in (six) days, and ever since he’s been interacting with it, flowering it with beauty, redeeming it, calling to his people, and eventually walking not away but into the world itself.) Ritter goes on in the song to sing about the horrors of war, of amputees and missiles as the only answer from above. There’s layer on layer of imagery, everything from Hamlet to Laurel and Hardy, and it builds to a fever of anger and emotion at the state of the world. But at the end of the song, after he’s said his piece, he seems to take a deep breath. He seems to wake from a nightmare and paints, more or less, a picture of heaven:

I woke beneath a clear blue sky The sun a shout, the breeze a sigh My old hometown and the streets I knew Were wrapped up in a royal blue

I heard my friends laughing out across the fields The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay Cicadas electric in the heat of the day

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land And the lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts They were coming together they pulling apart

And angels everywhere were in my midst In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed I wondered what it was I’d been looking for up above Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air Only a full house gonna have a prayer

I think he’s trying to answer all the outrage of the first half of the song with the reminder that somehow a world of beauty, friendship, and peace persists. This last stanza is loaded with card-playing references (notice all the words like “straight”, “flush”, “hand”, “hearts”, and “diamond”), which is cool, even if I don’t totally get it. But then comes the line, “Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up”.

I get what he’s trying to say, or at least I think I do, which is that maybe our time would be better spent not dreaming of some pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by-and-by. I think he thinks he’s pronouncing some indictment on Christianity, as if God wants us to let the earth go to rot and ruin because we lucky few are going to heaven anyway. Of course, that’s far from true. The Church is called to love, and love, and love; it’s an army embattled with the forces of darkness–forces that do want to see the world burn.

But if C.S. Lewis was right (and I think he was), then those of us in Christ will discover in heaven that heaven had, in a sense, overlapped our time on earth. Heaven really is bigger than he thinks, and because of Christ, it’s all around us, making everything sad come untrue (thank you, Samwise and Jason Gray).

From The Great Divorce: “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

The many good and beautiful things Ritter describes in that last stanza are, for those in Christ, the waves of heaven lapping up on our shores, washing back over our lives here. Lewis goes on to say that those who give themselves over to Hell will find that the same is true: they were already at its dark edges. Lewis: “And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.’”

So Ritter is asking good questions. I don’t necessarily agree with his answers, but that doesn’t keep me from being amazed by the songs–and the songs suggest to me that he’s paying attention, watching and listening to the part of his spirit that resonates with a certain secret fire. And if he keeps writing songs this good I think he’s going to have to try pretty hard to ignore the source of all that richness. His imagination and sense of poetry and narrative are a rare gift, and I’m intrigued enough to keep listening. And listening. The same way I listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland. I don’t get every song, and that’s part of why I keep coming back.

My hat is off to Josh Ritter. Please keep writing.

Here’s “The Curse”, along with the lyric and a video if you want to know more. Buy the song here. [audio:TheCurse.mp3]

The Curse

He opens his eyes falls in love at first sight With the girl in the doorway What beautiful lines and how full of life After thousands of years what a face to wake up to He holds back a sigh as she touches his arm She dusts off the bed where ‘til now he’s been sleeping And under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart Under scarab and bone starts back to its beating

She carries him home in a beautiful boat He watches the sea from a porthole in stowage He can hear all she says as she sits by his bed And one day his lips answer her in her own language The days quickly pass he loves making her laugh The first time he moves it’s her hair that he touches She asks, “Are you cursed?” he says, “I think that I’m cured” Then he talks of the Nile and the girls in bulrushes

In New York he is laid in a glass covered case He pretends he is dead people crowd round to see him But each night she comes round and the two wander down The halls of the tomb that she calls a museum Often he stops to rest but then less and less Then it’s her that looks tired staying up asking questions He learns how to read from the papers that she Is writing about him and he makes corrections

It’s his face on her book more and more come to look Families from Iowa, Upper West Siders Then one day it’s too much he decides to get up And as chaos ensues he walks outside to find her She’s using a cane and her face looks too pale But she’s happy to see him as they walk he supports her She asks “Are you cursed?” but his answer’s obscured In a sandstorm of flashbulbs and rowdy reporters

Such reanimation the two tour the nation He gets out of limos he meets other women Her speaks of her fondly their nights in the museum But she’s just one more rag now he’s dragging behind him She stops going out she just lies there in bed In hotels in whatever towns they are speaking Then her face starts to set and her hands start to fold And one day the dried fig of her heart stops its beating

Long ago in the ship she asked, “Why pyramids?” He said, “Think of them as an immense invitation” She asked, “Are you cursed?” He said, “I think that I’m cured” Then he kissed her and hoped that she’d forget that question


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