So Runs the World Away
Josh Ritter has taken it upon himself to be the songwriting conduit of all things Americana. He touched on it with tales of Idahoan history and Californian dreams on his break-out third album, Hello Starling (2003), the twinkling piano and hard-nosed ballads of The Animal Years (2006), where even Laurel and Hardy made appearances, while the less successful The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter’s (2007) folkier songs came straight from the Tin Pan Alley tradition. If you were afraid Ritter would abandon his sepia-toned story-songs that have drawn comparisons from Dylan to Hank Williams on So Runs the World Away, fear not. Just one glimpse of the cover, a Mississippi River steamer, confirms that Ritter has returned for another helping of songs steeped in the dusty pages of Twain, Poe and Traditional.
After a brief instrumental interlude, So Runs opens with the haunting, slow-building “Change of Time.” Beginning with Ritter finger-picking his guitar, the song soon swells into a dirge of shipwrecks and pretty backing vocals from Allie Moss and Ritter’s new wife, Dawn Landes. It is perhaps the most bombastic thing Ritter has put down, yet it works until its final anti-climactic note where the entire song ends on a vocal coda that could have come straight from a Britney Spears track.
“Change of Time” more or less exemplifies what works and what doesn’t on So Runs the World Away. Ritter is at his best on the gentle waltz of “The Curse” and the spare train ballad “Southern Pacifica.” Ritter excels at writing wistful ballads like these; an archeologist falls in love with a mummy and “Southern Pacifica’s” narrator is borne away from his love on the steel back of a locomotive. However, when Ritter tries to do something outside of his comfort zone, the results are mixed.
For every song that works on So Runs the World Away – already overlong with its 13 tracks- there is another song that falls flat. “Rattling Locks” attempts to be creepy and ominous with its Tom Waits clank and Landes vamping “Black hole” in the background, but instead it sounds uninspired and lethargic. The upbeat “Lark” is some straight Paul Simon AOR songwriting and it’s impossible to listen to the queasy metaphor of “Lantern” and not think of things like Elvis Costello’s North, where love sometimes isn’t the best muse.
But in its excessive heart there sits the pieces of an excellent album. The epic “Another New World,” with its lonely lyrics and instrumentation brings Ritter back to “Wings” territory and “Folk Bloodbath” invokes folk heroes and villains Louis Collins, Stackalee and Delia in a knock-out-drag-out fight. While the song works, I am hopeful it is the last time Stack will show up anywhere this century.
By the end of the album, all of So Runs the World Away’s successes and failures fold into a draw, leaving us with an album that is difficult to get excited about, yet has too much good on it not to recommend. Ritter is still searching for a way to top the near-perfect Hello Starling and there are some moments on So Runs the World Away that come close. But like some of his protagonists, Ritter is out there exploring uncharted regions of the world and some of those places are uninhabitable. Let’s hope he comes back soon.