Over the clatter of piano and strum of an electric guitar that opens his fourth studio album, Josh Ritter leaps into rapid-fire lyrics that reference Joan of Arc, Calamity Jane and Florence Nightingale, all of whom seem to be stuck together in the belly of a whale. As the follow-up to last year's critically-acclaimed album The Animal Years, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is his most adventurous, fresh, and freewheeling work to date.
While The Animal Years was a meticulously crafted and stately paean, for Conquests the artist radically revamped his working methods and his sound. “I needed to be somebody different,” the singer says. “The air of gravitas around me was getting oppressive. For some reason it seemed like there was a premium being placed on earnestness and that can be pretty stifling. There was a lot of talk about true love and righteous indignation. I wanted to write about gunslingers and missile silos.” The result is an often raucous, occasionally dizzying affair, with pounding keyboards, strings, horns, and his new producer and long-time collaborator Sam Kassirer, leading the charge. About the recording conditions in the Maine farmhouse where the record was made, Ritter enthuses, “You should have seen it up there. It was January and twenty below. We had horns in the attic, we had strings in the barn, we had a gaggle of people shooting targets with bb guns in the woods. It was a full house and everyone was there to throw themselves at the music. There was no holding back.”
The artistic leaps Josh Ritter displays on Conquests are not without their stepping-stones, however. On a conceptual level, Paul McCartney’s Ram served as an ever-present reminder to enjoy the process of writing. Ritter was attracted to the free-spirited quality of the solo album McCartney made at his own farmhouse—amidst the Beatles’ tumultuous breakup: “It sounded like he had something to prove, but also like he didn’t really care. In terms of my favorite records, Ram is more about the philosophy. If this guy can do this after what he came through, then, okay, maybe I could try something like this too. It really loosened me up.” Stepping farther back, he cites Buddy Holly’s apocryphal "The Apartment Tapes" as a major influence. “A friend passed me Buddy Holly’s Apartment Tapes. The tapes are plain and genius. Buddy sang ‘Learning the Game’ and ‘That’s What they Say’ in his apartment in New York City and you can hear his wife bumping around in the kitchen and the whole thing feels clear but not simple. Those recordings feel like a Raymond Carver story. I listen to him and remember that it doesn’t have to be all nine-minute songs. That guy can get more across in a couplet than some people are lucky to learn in their whole life.”
Given the new lyrical and musical trails that he is blazing, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter proves that one can still cross any number of Rubicons all the while not taking themselves too seriously. Historic indeed.