If it’s not easy being green, then it can’t be easy to be a chameleon, famed for its adeptness at camouflaging its color to suit its surroundings. Josh Ritter is absolutely a musical chameleon, drawing on the essence of a host of major musical forces past and present, to the point where it has often been difficult to discern the man himself beneath layers of Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, and most of all Bob Dylan. It’s safe to assume that no review of any of his records has been without numerous references to Ritter’s sleeve-worn influences. But as his latest, the rollicking Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, makes clear that the songwriter is no mere mimic, and he’s having a grand old time. The album’s 14 songs blow by in a concise 42 minutes, and yes, it seems like every song takes a shot at another artist or band’s signature style, but below the surface there is plenty of Ritter’s own wit as well as confidence and vision. The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter captures an artist making a deliberate stab at real growth, and largely succeeding.
The breathless leadoff track, “To the Dogs or Whoever”, combines vintage Dylanesque verses with an achingly beautiful chorus that has little precedent in that icon’s catalog. Lyrics tumble out of Ritter’s mouth with sly delivery, making reference to Joan of Arc, Calamity Jane, and Florence Nightingale all in the belly of a whale. Ritter has admitted to growing wary of the “air of gravitas” that has been growing steadily around him, and “To the Dogs” effortlessly and joyfully shucks that burden off. “I thought I heard somebody calling / In the dark I thought I heard somebody call” sings with a rowdy choir of friends on the chorus, a simple hook enhanced by the richness of language on either side, a tale that blends history, mythology, fantasy, and love song conceits into a heady concoction that also makes one want to dance. The sinister, Spoon-like thump of “Mind’s Eye” immediately follows, leaning heavily on cascading guitar strokes and a tough vocal performance by Ritter. “I’m gonna take up the Steinway / I’m gonna start me a new way / I’m puttin’ up with you lightweights” he spits out, referencing the piano on which he built much of the album, and which apparently he didn’t know how to play prior to the sessions. But there it is, weaving dark lines under Ritter’s cocksure snarl, both elements sure to surprise his fanbase.
“Rumors” treads similar sonic ground, slinky and noir, with Ritter again waxing self-referential, “I put a whip to the kick drum / But the music’s never loud enough”. Later he boasts “My orchestra is gigantic / This thing could sink the Titanic / And the string section’s screaming / Like horses in a barn burning up” like a hip-hop MC. The song is peppered by horns, distant bells, and muffled conversation, crafting an experience that is immediate and accessible on the surface, but dense enough to not get stale after even obsessive listening. But the album isn’t all smirks and posturing; Ritter still has a deft hand with the quieter moments. Most notable is Paul Simonish “The Temptation of Adam” whose protagonist shacks up in a missile silo with a gal who is resolutely un-charmed at first, but eventually succumbs. Ritter’s lyrics are infuriatingly clever from the start, “’If this was a cold war we could keep each other warm’ / I said on the first occasion that I met Marie / We were crawling through the hatch that was the missile silo door / And I don’t think that she really thought that much of me / I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the bomb.” But even just for the deliberate care of Ritter’s wordplay and the steady fingerpicked accompaniment, the song has intense heart despite the winks.
These strongest moments, and a few other merely great ones (the ‘70s AM-radio throwback “Right Moves”, the Springsteen/Earle chooglin’ of “Open Doors”) help compose an album that is remarkably consistent in an era which, despite best efforts, still has a hard time producing solid front to back albums. But not all of the songs show off Ritter’s promising new wild streak. “Still Beating” sounds a hair self-conscious in its prettiness, while “Real Long Distance” might be one piano banging number too many. But it must be acknowledged that these songs would still be the best cuts on the albums of most of Ritter’s contemporaries. Here they only pale beside some real lasting material. The cacophonous honking of a dozen free-range horns keeps “Real Long Distance” from ending with too fine a point, and that is cause for celebration. When and if an artist manages to get better as they get messier, when their lesser tracks still contain blips of progress and invention, there’s a new conquest to get behind.