Album Reviews: Animal Years by Josh RitterThis isn't the same wide-eyed Dylanesque troubadour that gingerly offered up his last two sets of folk-pop. Josh Ritter's third album, The Animal Years, has guts. And it takes guts to make a passionate, sincere, no frills folk-rock album in 2006.
The album opens on a conversation between the apostles Peter and Paul. Peter mourns, "talking to God is like Laurel begging Hardy for a gun." "Girl in the War" lets listeners know that they are in for something bigger than they realized. Track ten, "Thin Blue Flame", is a ten minute epic that circles back to the sentiments of the opening track and pulls them into the album's centerpiece. It's an intense marching song with Pentecostal imagery as the soul of a man floats over the carnage of war and expresses feelings of fear, doubt, and anger.
But never fear, the album isn't all heavy numbers. And it never feels weighty, due to the fact that Ritter is not preaching at the listener. We are taking a journey with him, not forced to follow. The album has plenty of the lighter and softer pop moments that we've come to expect from Ritter. "Lillian Egypt" is an upbeat story about a fictitious silent film star. And "Good Man" is the most uplifting song you'll hear all year. Somehow Ritter is able to make all of these disparate themes and tones come together in an extremely cohesive album that flows and impacts. The entirety feels like a timeless overview of the human condition.
Ritter is an extremely sincere and literate songwriter who wears his heart and poetry journal on his sleeve. What I didn't sense on his first two albums that makes his new effort his strongest to date is his passion. There's not a sense of irony or copping out at any point on this album. Instead of employing sarcasm or misanthropic melancholia to tackle heavy topics, he faces them head on like a Cat Stevens or Van Morrison spiritual journey and comes out sounding like an obvious musical hero of his: Bruce Springsteen.
This is the kind of breakthrough album that an artist can really hang his hat on. It's not a breakthrough in that he's abandoning his former self. He's still a troubadour at heart, but he's added some passion and muscle. Ritter is a rare treat -- a real singer-songwriter. There aren't many of them in the 21st century. Real ones, at least. He wasn't created in a label boardroom and hasn't worked harder on his image than his songs. He isn't going to win over the ultra-hipster fickle indie rock crowd. He's too clean, too honest, and his music evokes thought and emotion. Many aren't comfortable with either. But if there's any justice, Josh Ritter will be a household name very soon. -- Doug Kamin
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