The singer/songwriter brings his latest to the TLA this week.
If Josh Ritter’s 2006 epic The Animal Years was his graduation from singer/songwriter to Americana laureate, and 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter was his first full-album experiment with sweeping soundscapes and wall-of-sound production, So Runs the World Away combines the two in a way that’s both ambitious and breathtaking. It’s an album about balance: the land and the sea, science and religion, hope and hopelessness.
The stories are complex, haunting and beautiful, like the Egyptian mummy who falls in love with his Victorian archaeologist in “The Curse,” or “Another New World,” in which a seafaring explorer has to kill the one thing he loves most—his ship, the Poe-inspired Annabelle Lee—just to survive. Some songs leave you chilled to the bone.
But there are moments of levity, too. “Lark” is a flitty lark of a song with plenty of bounce and joy, and “Folk Bloodbath” is as light and enjoyable as a dirge with this high a body count can be.
On the phone from California, the Idaho native talked about So Runs the World Away, out this week, as well as trains, boats and the place of the artist between science and religion.
I’m a little confused. I always thought you were a train guy, but So Runs is lousy with ship metaphors.
“Trains were always in my blood because when I was little, trains would go by my house and blow on through and go somewhere that sounded amazing. I would never have thought being from a landlocked state I would have affinity for ships. But there’s something about the solitude of being on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Trains are part of American history, but metaphors with ships are so much older. And maritime lingo is just so cool.”
Is it an overall obsession with transportation?
“I’ve lived my adult life on the road. And I’m an American, and we’re the travelers now. There’s nothing like a 12-hour drive at night. It’s amazing we can do it. Traveling is so much a part of the mythology of the West. I grew up on the Lewis and Clark trail. That was a part of our history.
“I love Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen—they’re poets of the automobile. It was never quite as attractive to me. Plus, I’m not a gear guy. I like to get on things that take me somewhere.”
Your songs aren’t religious per se, but there’s a lot of religious imagery floating around. Were you raised with religion?
“I was raised Lutheran, although I think my own kind of whatever I believe is either way more complicated or way more simple than that. My main problem is that religion seems to beg that you not ask questions. And in doing so they deny you the right to create something. I feel conflicted by it.”
But for every religious metaphor you use, there’s a science one as well. Are you working on that balance?
“One of the greatest images in culture is this conflict between science, religion and art. And science is art. Religion is supposed to be that too, and so the two naturally clash. If I can spin my songs, look at both sides and try to combine those things, I feel good because I’m trying to express my own ideas. I don’t believe I should be trying to educate anybody.”
So what’s the artist’s role in that conflict?
“I think I’m a canary in a coal mine. That’s what art is anyway. You see things around you that don’t compute—they don’t match up with what you’ve been told. The process of trying to marry those different ideas together is what you’re doing when you’re making music.
“Take the song “Orbital”: I had been reading about this thing called orbital decay—gravity being something that affects everything large and small. You can see it but can’t measure it. There’s nothing emitted—we just see that something is attracted to something else. I was reading that in large, massive objects, like two stars, they emit waves that we can actually see—too massive to be measured. As stars begin to pull away from each other, fluctuations in the waves change. And it got me thinking how much like love gravity is. We see it in our human interactions. We see it as an attraction and a falling away. Time slows down when somebody enters a room. It does, just barely, but it’s there.”
How do you tackle something so technical and complicated like that in a lyric?
“It should read plainly. Robert Frost never had to show off. His ideas were conveyed so simply. But there was something there that everybody could understand. He wasn’t crowding them out with ellipses. He was forced by his medium to make things plain. That’s a skill that’s easy to take for granted.”
So if you say it more plainly, people will respond better?