The prevailing mood of Josh Ritter‘s latest album could be accurately described as haunting. From the initial “ooooh” that opens to the final lingering chord and silence that closes the record, and everywhere in between, the ambiance is ethereal. There’s something mysterious going on between the Spectral Lines.
The ten songs are musically linked in tone but not necessarily in the stated topic. The lyrics are poetic and metaphoric. The narrator is frequently on the run, atop a horse, floating on a boat, or zooming in a rocket. He’s in a field of “Sawgrass”, in the ocean or out in space. There are no specific clues as to when everything takes place. Still, there are references to the past, present, and future. Time is important, as in time passing and what’s ahead, but not the details of another world.
“Someday there’s going to be justice,” Ritter sings softly. But when is never clear. We come from dust and return to dust, but what’s in between? Ritter’s take on life is basically that we all get screwed. The how, what, why, and by whom are left unstated. The singer is hopeful, but he sees no signs of improvement.
Ritter backs his quiet pronouncements with muted instrumentation, which contributes to the album’s atmospherics. He plays (mostly) acoustic guitar with long-time producer Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Langhorne Slim), backing him up on keyboards. Ritter’s also joined by his Royal City Band featuring Jocie Adams on clarinet, Matt Douglas on woodwinds, Zachariah Hickman on bass, Rich Hinman on pedal steel, Shane Leonard on drums, Kevin O’Connell on percussion, and Dietrich Strause on acoustic guitar. Together, the instruments blend to create a soothing backdrop with an implicit ache of desire. There’s something vaguely erotic about the songs.
Take “Whatever Burns Will Burn”. Lines such as “You wrapped your wings around my throat” suggest a physical connection between the singer and the object of his desire. However, the delicate music behind the vocal, not to mention the woman singing opera-like notes in the background, makes things chaste and unearthly. Things are presented from a higher plane of consciousness.
Ritter dedicated Spectral Lines to the memory of his mother, and perhaps he’s exploring some type of eternal feminine in a psychoanalytical sense. Whatever gets the creative juices flowing. Spectral Lines is Ritter’s 11th studio album. He’s well-known as a gifted writer with two novels to his name. As a musician, each track shows the spit and polish of a well-crafted artwork. Songs such as “For Your Soul” add sonic touches like the creaking of a porch swing and a capella chorus to create the mood. The description of violence in “Honey I Do” becomes more macabre thanks to the clever use of synthesizers and reverb. There are many examples of this attention to detail and general creativity.
The poetic lyrics combine with the sensitive instrumentation to create a sum greater than the individual parts. The words have a more profound sensibility than their dreaminess initially coveys. The musical sounds become more complex when taken in sequence and as a whole. They provide the aural equivalent of smoke and colored lights on a stage. The results are spooky in the best sense. One may not be scared of the results but find the results thrilling in their own way.