"After Bob Dylan took his guitar case on the road to New York . . . he inspired an earnest army of guitar poets who took a dubious message from his example: that songs had to be homemade in order to be deeply, authentically felt by their listeners."
-- Nathan Ward
On the opening cut of Golden Age of Radio, Josh Ritter's vocal and guitar meld together to create a hypnotic hum reminiscent of Nick Drake on his last album, Pink Moon. The soothing whisper mesmerizes the listener, and one is ready to turn down the lights and drink in Son of Pink Moon. It is somewhat surprising when the second track, "Me & Jiggs", switches the entire sonic palette to a folk-rock mode. While this switch is surprising, it is neither jarring nor a let down. In fact, a great hook on the chorus of "Me & Jiggs" makes the song catchier than "Come and Find Me".
One other lovely Drake inspired piece, "You've Got the Moon", makes an appearance. The satisfying mix and tasteful arrangements, with two acoustic guitars and a bass, work together to produce a full, spacious sound. On both "Come and Find Me" and "You've Got the Moon", Ritter delivers his lyrics in a warm, melancholy voice, perfectly suited to the acoustic format.
The remainder of the album mixes an alternative country sound with a singer-songwriter's sensibility (Todd Snider, Slaid Cleaves). While songs like "Lawrence, Ks." and "Anne" are good, they fail to live up to the promise and originality of the first three pieces. Like a number of Americana bands (the Cash Brothers, the Gourds), Ritter's vocal drone on these pieces evokes a mood that's about as happy as a Smiths' song. A gentler, more acoustic based "Leaving" lifts the veil of sadness for a few moments (musically if not lyrically), only to have it return on "Other Side" and "Harrisburg".
Part of the gloomy mood of Golden Age of Radio derives from Ritter's lyrics, though one will have to click onto his web-site to find them in written form. While it's worth the trouble, the need to do so is a little disconcerting: it's fun to pour over the words as one listens to an album (of course one can just print them out, if he or she wants 10 pages of loose leaf lyrics lying about). Lyrics like "But June is like an echo / Of the sounds we never made" from "Songs for the Fireflies" and "But I know you've got what you need to be / Happy someplace East of me" on "Roll On" reveal the gloomy state of things. Love doesn't last, and that's real sad, but one can at least write songs about it. It's also interesting to note a reference to Townes Van Zandt in "Me & Jiggs". Van Zandt's name and songs pop up more often now than when he was alive, as though artists are mapping out their musical pedigrees.
As these lyrics show, singer-songwriter Ritter, like most singer-songwriters, is more interested in the workings of his own heart and mind than the workings of the universe. Mood and feeling replace social content. The problem is separating oneself from the singer-songwriter pack. With hundreds of songs set to clever lyrics about lost love and searching for one's personal identity, the words, melodies, and vocals sometimes appear interchangeable. Nathan Ward also argues in American Heritage that the singer-songwriter tradition attempts to encompass too much. Instead of being a great writer, like Cole Porter, or a great interpreter, like Billie Holiday, the singer-songwriter tries to do both. While certain artists like Bob Dylan have what it takes to pull that off, most don't.
Sonically, Golden Age of Radio has much to recommend it. Neatly arranged acoustic guitars, organ, and steady percussion warmly fill a listening room. Add carefully thought-out arrangements and an aurally pleasing stereo mix, and one's left with a lovingly produced album. Song-wise and lyrically, however, the material fails to sustain Golden Age of Radio's exquisite, evocative beginning.