I'm one of Josh Ritter's Top 10 fans, but you'd never know it from the way I react to his CDs when they're first released. I resist them. Mightily. Instead of embracing the new, I fall in love all over again with the last CD he made. And then, six months later...
Not this time.
"Sermon on the Rocks" is just out, but I've had it for a few months, and every time I listen to it -- and I listen to it often -- I feel glad to be breathing the same oxygen as the musician who made it. And this is odd. "Sermon" should take me months to accept and adore. Why doesn't it?
Start with the photograph. This is not the fuzzy-haired boy/man we've known for a decade, the singer-songwriter who gets pigeonholed as a folkie because that's the easiest place to put him. This is the new, souped-up, lean and mean model. There's a little James Dean here. A rocker? Too simple. Think: man on fire, making what he calls "messianic oracular honky-tonk."
I could write about "Sermon" for hours, but as Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, liked to say, "It's what's in the grooves that counts." So let's go there.
"Sermon" begins with "Birds of the Meadow." Does it sound like a Josh Ritter CD? It does not. It starts with electronic scatter and a pounding drum. Then:
I didn't come to ask you
How you're doin' these days.
Didn't come to roll no stones away, no.
I've come to tell you that the end is nigh.
I've come to prophesize.
You wanted a messenger and I am thee,
Your heebie-jeebie man, in ecstasy.
But my eyes are blazing and I'm mental dark.
You better hark.
This is no merciful prophet. He's street -- the way he spits out 'doin'" and "stones" billboards that. And what's his prophecy? "Fire is coming."
A dark CD? Anything but. Don't be fooled, Many of the songs couldn't be jauntier. One takes Ritter 6 CDs into his past, to a story of the Midwest back when men wore high collars and spats and you could "see the devil" in a man's eyes. And then there are three songs on YouTube you can hear now -- and I, putting on my critic's cap, can talk about. Suggestion: Sit back from the screen, the praise is intense.
"Getting Ready to Get Down" is the single from the CD, with a million plays on Spotify signifying something like a FM hit. Ritter's commentary: "I wrote it (for the most part) on the back porch looking at an apple tree and alternating coffee, bourbon and ice water. I consider the album to be pretty adventurous and wild, and I think 'Get Down' really gets the party started."
Because of the CD's title and this song, I hope -- I pray -- that Red State fundamentalists will burn this CD, the way they burned Beatles albums after John said the band was bigger than Jesus. (Talk about free publicity!) There's certainly provocation: "Give your love freely to whoever that you please... And when you get damned in the popular opinion, it's just another damn of the damns you're not giving."
Another potential single, "Where the Night Takes Us," evokes Ritter's Idaho childhood:
"I remember fall nights at the football game, the wheat fields freshly shorn, their stubble burning, filling the autumn air with harvest dust, sweet smoke, and the light of the red-orange ball that was the rising moon. To think of nights like that is to let the moonlight in, half-bright like my memories of those times..."
Instant translation: young hearts, running free. God, to go back there, to be who we were then. And to feel that way now? Here it is....
I wish there were a video for "The Stone." My sense of it: Ritter's looking back to his broken marriage and comparing it to his new love. You change your place, but you keep your hurt, and you keep your pain "close company now." And here you are, "different arms around me now," on a different street in a different town. I have been there, and so perhaps have you, and you know there's nothing to do but "free your heart from the stone."
The last available video is for "Homecoming." Ritter's associations:
"From Make Out Point, wherever it should be, you can look out over your city, your town, your bend in the road. From here you can speak into the cavern of the night sky. Your dreams and wishes, vast and crazy as they are, will be registered, if only just once, as in confession, by the person who has come here with you. A lot of other stuff will happen also, and this will be good. There will be nothing wrong with it. There is a Tree of Good and Evil here, in this moment, in this high place. For an instant you see it against moonlight, ancient and cragged, but it loses focus and is lost against the twinkling lights of human lives far below."
This is Small Town boy finding out about life late at night, probably violating a girl's curfew. It's Bob Seger. It's Bruce Springsteen. It's America as we wish it were. Not "darkness at the edge of town," because there's as much Good here as there is Evil. A universe in perfect, eternal balance. And... listen to the propulsion in the insistent background... the joy of coming home.
The CD was recorded in New Orleans, with a new producer. There are hot female backup singers, choruses that mash up gospel and Memphis, guitars that Keith Richards might envy, electronics that float you forward. But in the center, heart open, mind racing, there is Josh Ritter.
I used to think: "heir to Paul Simon." Too easy. Now I'm reminded of a favorite story.
Marcel Proust enters the Ritz dining room. Circles under his eyes. Greasy hair. Obviously a degenerate. And yet a fuss is made over him.
A Prussian general notices. And asks his aide: "Who's that?"
"Marcel Proust, sir. He's written a book."
"What's it like?"
"It's not 'like' anything, sir."
And that is "Sermon on the Rocks." Not like anything. But very much like the best CD anyone will make for grown-ups this year.
Josh Ritter is terrific in concert. Here's his tour schedule.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]