The fifth LP from neo-folk master craftsman Josh Ritter has been conceived as a voyage of discovery. A shimmering aural and lyrical paean to humanity’s essential questing impulse, So Runs the World Away is also well-attuned to the senses of yearning and of existential absence that motivate that impulse. Populated with wandering mariners, lovesick Egyptian mummies, philosophical chemists, mountaintop seers, grim polar adventurers, and recurring black holes, Ritter’s exquisite collection of songs reflects back at those who once looked forward.
Ritter’s chosen themes and tones on So Runs the World Away align it most closely with his career’s early peak, 2006’s sublime The Animal Years. Both records possess a transcendent, celestial scope that dwarfs Ritter’s earlier, straighter folk albums (to say nothing of their stopgap, the rollicking Historical Conquests), but there are vital differences between them, too.
The Animal Years saw Ritter searching for the supernatural around every riverbend and in every prairie coulee. When that song-cycle ultimately located the elusive godhead in its shattering climax “Thin Blue Flame”, however, it took the form of “an old man wandering the halls alone”. For all of the album’s overt biblical imagery, Ritter could extract little comfort or meaning from religion, embracing instead a robust humanism (“only a full house is gonna make it through”).
Existential riddles are again on Ritter’s mind through the course of So Runs the World Away, but he subsumes the natural/spiritual dialectic so common to folk music and zeroes in on the heyday of empiricism instead. A son of two neuroscientists who nearly became a neuroscientist himself, Ritter has drawn songwriting material from scientific subject matter in the past; one of his earliest songs, “Stuck to You”, amusingly deconstructed love-ballad clichés by applying the stark logic of multi-syllabic scientific jargon to them. But this time around, he reconstructs detailed tableaus from the history of late 19th and early 20th century archaeology, astronomy, and exploration, outlining the shadows of meaning cast by the Industrial Age’s last great sweep against the superstitious unknown.
Following an iridescent meteor shower of guitar noise (“Curtains”), “Change of Time” commences the album’s questing. Recasting the crashing sonic waves of “Thin Blue Flame” into a manageably epic dreamscape of metaphorical marine imagery, Ritter and his band craft a striking and immediate segue into what becomes an increasingly idiosyncratic vision. Much of what follows has a specific contextual focus, but “Change of Time” is simply, stunningly timeless.
This portrait of sea-bound eternity is succeeded by the lonely waltzing piano rhythm of “The Curse”. A narrative of the unlikely romance between a reanimated Egyptian mummy and the female archaeologist who unearths him from his tomb, “The Curse” is the descendent of “The Temptation of Adam”, a narrative of an unlikely romance in a nuclear missile silo that was Historical Conquests‘s imaginative highlight. Both songs feature tumbling wordplay and mournful horn interludes, and both come across as funny, bittersweet, and oddly touching despite the expected ridiculousness of their highly-detailed subject matter. While “Temptation” stood alone amidst dissimilar up-tempo tracks, “The Curse” forms the nucleus of So Runs the World Away. To employ one Egyptian reference point that Ritter left out of the song’s lyric sheet, it is the Rosetta Stone of this album.
The album’s themes and sounds unfurl with gradual beauty from this point on. “Southern Pacific” floats along with that classic American archetype, a restless Western seeker (“Over the wide plains / Take me to someplace new”). The metallic cacophony of “Rattling Locks” accompanies a lyric that stings with the soft bitterness of empirical existentialism (“there ain’t nothing new about the world / that I ain’t learned from just standing here in this spot”). “Lantern” and “Long Shadows” contrast the earlier skepticism with stubborn, anthemic hopefulness. “Lark” is lovely and pure, conceiving of mountaintop astronomical observatories as legacies of spiritual ecstasy. “The Remnant”, all angular rhythm and organ stabs, begins as a foreboding chase through the wilderness before expanding into a desperate cosmic apocalypse, while “Orbital” traces endless circumferences with richness and joy. Even the adapted traditional ballad “Folk Bloodbath” has something to say about the impossibility of finding peace even in death.
If “The Curse” is the Rosetta Stone of So Runs the World Away, then its thematic bookend “Another New World” is too expansive to fit into any museum. The deeply haunting story of a polar explorer who sacrifices the ship that is his only companion in order to survive the icy desolation, “Another New World” constitutes the elegiac and unsettling thesis of Josh Ritter’s potent new album. So Runs the World Away, both the album title and the music it describes, is redolent less of the thrills and exploits of exploration than of the sad beauty of the unobtainable. Ritter suggests that the gleaming horizons aimed for by the boldest among us can never quite be reached, and even the effort to approach them comes at a great cost. And yet, we must quest on.