"Galahad" // Josh Ritter // To the Yet Unknowing World EP

"Galahad" isn’t actually from So Runs the World Away, but comes from those same sessions and was released on a separate EP. As with so many of the songs from this album, we get a fully detailed story; however, this one isn’t even close to being sad. “In heaven, there’s no lamb chops / Queen Guineveres for hand jobs, marijuana, Kenny Rodgers, or ecstasy,” the angel tells Galahad when asking him why he wants to go to heaven. While Josh sticks to tradition in "Folk Bloodbath," we have a (clearly) non-traditional retelling here.

The other thing I love about this song is Galahad is bisexual; he’s just as into the stable boys as he is to Queen Guinevere, which is not normally how we view Galahad. I can’t find much about Galahad being bi anywhere else, but I love how it’s dealt with here: it’s not a punchline and I find it to be a nice little detail thrown in there. We don’t get many bisexual protagonists anywhere, much less in songs, so I’m pleased Josh made this change. Just because we’re playing with history doesn’t mean that everyone has to be straight.

“Another New World” // Josh Ritter // So Runs the World Away

Of all the stories Josh Ritter has ever told in song, I think this is the one that has affected me the most. This song sparked my interest (well, okay, occasionally it flares up as an obsession) in nineteenth-century Arctic exploration. I’ve read, like, five or six books on the subject, and I have plenty more on a to-read list because I need to know more. It’s influenced my writing to the point where I’ve written a few Arctic stories of my own. And yet, no matter how hard I try, I cannot render a story as perfectly or as beautifully told as this one.

It’s such a great tale, too, of exploration and adventure, but also of love. The speaker loves Annabelle Lee so goddamn much that to give her up is a physically painful process: “We talked of the other new worlds we discovered / she gave up her body to me / and as her mast turned to timber I told her / of all that we still had to see.” “The Temptation of Adam” is sad. “The Curse” is sad. Those love stories involve people. But there’s something deeply affecting about “Another New World,” mainly because a dude and his boat are ripped apart in the most heartbreaking way possible. Josh takes what could be merely a sad footnote in history and elevates it to a tragedy. 

I love the instrumentation of this track, too. It feels cold and sparse, like you can hear the ice stretching out all around you. There are little twinkly noises that sound like clear stars overhead, or of the ice closing in; they die down just as Josh begins describing Annabelle’s death. Really, everything about this song is perfect, and to write a small essay about how I love it wouldn’t even do it justice; it’d turn into a ten thousand word ramble about what I think happens to the speaker and the boat. It’s a haunting tale, though, and I think the tone is just right: one of adventure but also nostalgia, where the speaker seeks to reclaim that feeling of rediscovering the world. 

I know it’s Josh Ritter week, but I’ll also sneak in this cover of “Another New World” by the Punch Brothers, my other favourite band. (Chris Thile’s a mandolin god, but that’s worth another week at least.) I think the mark of a well-written song is when it can transcend genre without losing any of its original power, and the Punch Brothers certainly accomplish that here. Their version is stormier than Josh’s—you hear the waves rather than the ice—and here is where I am convinced that the boat is actually this weird ghost-lady who begins to haunt the speaker the longer he stays in the Arctic. It’s tempestuous, it’s brutal, it’s breathtaking—just like Josh’s, but in a much different way. I can’t pick a favourite. Both are fabulous; listen to them and try not to cry into your tea. (Everyone’s gotta grieve over a boat sometime.)

Track

Folk Bloodbath

Artist

Josh Ritter

Album

So Runs The World Away

“Folk Bloodbath” // Josh Ritter // So Runs the World Away

By now, I’m sure you’re sick of me talking about how good Josh is at telling stories. “Folk Bloodbath” is based on the traditional tune “Louis Collins” by Mississippi John Hurt. Josh said in an interview with NPR that he “grew up a huge fan of a lot of different types of folk music, and I wanted to put Barbara Allen, Stagger Lee and Delia and Louis Collins all together on a song and see who came out [alive].” He basically wrote crossover fanfiction about his favourite folk song characters. It’s fantastic, though. Woven together, Josh spins a tale of murder in the south, where almost no-one gets out of this town alive. People die in oxblood red stetsons. The judge’s name is “Hangin’ Billy Lyons.” That’s a grim moniker if I ever heard one. What could’ve been a more traditional arrangement of the song turns into something large, bombastic, and amazing.

There’s also some more of that magical realism at the end of this song: “And out of Delia’s bed came briars, out of Louis’ bed a rose / and out of Stackalee’s came Stackalee’s cold lonely little ghost.” Beautifully creepy, and really hammers home the fact that Stackalee’s probably never gonna find peace in life or death. Instead of leaving it there, though, the speaker takes it one step further, “looking over rooftops and hoping that it ain’t true / that the same God looks out for them looks out for me and you.” That’s not a blind acceptance of the status quo, saying “they got what they deserved,” as you might expect. It’s a cautionary tale, but maybe it’s also one for us, hoping that we escape the folk bloodbath that some god gave these poor fellas. Be careful where you put your faith. You could end up very dead.

“Rattling Locks” // Josh Ritter // So Runs the World Away

You remember my post on “Rumors” and how that’s one of Josh’s angriest songs? “Rattling Locks” takes that to a whole different level. This is the kind of song that, when you listen to it, you think, oh shit, someone’s really got it out for the world. This song isn’t bragging, but more of a ferocious diatribe against someone who just keeps stealing your love away. You can hear the rain pouring down and just picture someone standing outside a castle, rattling chains and yelling real loud, but nobody even bothers to come check him out. (This is a song I’ve never seen live with the full band, but I’ll take whatever videos I can get; I just wanna see the Royal City Band standing on stage, all clacking drumsticks together.)

Josh is really good with the celestial metaphors (similes, whatever). We got a song a while back about a girl who’s like the Northern lights, but now this girl is a black hole, sucking everything without spitting any light back. What’s more, this song is unrepentant: “Rumors” showed a desire to learn, perhaps even to change his future. “Rattling Locks” is just a whole bunch of anger and then… he leaves. He gives up. Rather than rattling her locks, he’d rather spend a night in Hell. It’s not worth it anymore., clearly This is so different than the happy Josh that we normally see, but what a release of emotion. And while the songs on his next record never get quite this angry, there’s a lot more emotion where this came from.

Track

Change of Time

Artist

Josh Ritter

Album

So Runs The World Away

“Change of Time” // Josh Ritter // So Runs the World Away

When I think Josh Ritter, I think of the NFL. No, really. “Change of Time” was used in a weird NFL advert which still doesn’t quite make sense to me, if only because I never would have connected this song with American football. Never

I think that’s mostly because I find football to be the opposite of a calming sport, whereas this is definitely my go-to song whenever life is turning to crap and I need consolation. The opening guitar sounds like waves that roll over you in a protective way, like when people go surfing and the water creates a tunnel around them. Fitting for a song that has a lot of references to water and the ocean. Around the two-minute mark, the instrumentation kicks up a notch, and it feels like a submarine or a sea monster emerging from the water, “leviathan and lonely” to be sure, but also victorious. 

There’s a feeling of being okay with all this turmoil, however. The song’s refrain of “rough seas, they carry me / wherever I go” encapsulates this perfectly. Compared to the uncertainty that characterized The Animal Years, “Change of Time” seems to respond by acknowledging that you can ride through the change and still make it out alive. You just have to take a moment to breathe.

“The Curse” // Josh Ritter // So Runs the World Away

We’re moving into So Runs the World Away now. If The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter was like a giant comic book, So Runs is more like a series of huge historical woven tapestries, or like "they were painted in oil on large canvasses," in Josh’s own words. It’s large, it’s expansive, and it takes its time so much more than the last album, running 54 minutes long. It’s longer and there’s more room to breathe and move around, like that hollow feeling you get when you do a yoga stretch. And perhaps there is no song more representative of this shift than “The Curse.”

If you’ve never heard this song before, you’re in for a real treat. Also: watch the video. Don’t just leave it hanging out in the background. The video makes this a zillion times more heartbreaking, and it’s already really sad.

This song is one of Josh’s most well-known songs and, my God, what a story. The bare-bones of the plot is a mummy falls in love with an archaeologist. Yet this song is more than just a simple love story. I think it fits the medium well. If this were merely a short story, I’m not sure it would work so beautifully: it might get weighted down and clunky, but five minutes of music lets this love affair spin itself out. The melody is pretty simple, allowing the lyrics to shine. I mean, just look at the second verse:

He holds back a sigh as she touches his arm
She dusts off the bed where till now he’s been sleeping
Under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart
Under scarab and bone starts back to its beating

“The dried fig of his heart.” I love that. What laser-precise language; you can picture it immediately and know what it feels like to wake up after thousands of years, even though you’ve never been a mummy yourself. (If you have, I’ve been making gross assumptions, and I do apologize.) This is Next Level Storytelling, to be honest. Anyone can make you cry by making you grow attached to characters for fifteen pages, only to have their love meet a tragic end. Josh accomplishes the same effect over the course of five minutes, only to make you gasp when that last verse comes in. (Really, the video also deserves credit here, too—I forget how sad this song is until I see those marionettes twirling around.) I only wish I could do that with my own writing.

Waiting for Love

"Wait for Love" and "Wait for Love (You Know You Will)" // Josh Ritter // The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter doesn’t do too many two-part songs; in fact, I can’t think of any beyond these two. They act as (sort-of) bookends for Historical Conquests, with “Wait for Love” serving as a coda for Part I of the album and “Wait for Love (You Know You Will)” as a rousing ending for the whole album.

These songs have the same lyrics, although the instrumentation (and mood) of each song varies wildly. “Wait for Love” is quiet, strung-out and unassuming, something that drifts by easy in the summer breeze. It’s more of a meditation, and perhaps more patient than its sister song: you’re making me wait, but maybe you’re absolutely worth the wait. This is the kind of song you might play on your guitar to try to win someone over, just to convince them to stop waiting and to join you.

"Wait For Love (You Know You Will)" is a different song altogether, even with the same lyrics. A crowd of people is singing (to the dogs or whoever) and the speaker is perhaps not as patient as he once was when singing; Josh’s delivery is a little more decisive in this version. Percussion crashes in the background and, overall, it feels way more like sitting around a campfire. Funnily enough, this version still feels personal, even with a whole group singing and the story becoming a little more universal. Moving between the personal and the universal is something we’ll see a little bit more of in the future of Josh’s music, particularly when we talk about The Beast in its Tracks—but for now, both sides are on display here.

Track

Open Doors

Artist

Josh Ritter

Album

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

"Open Doors" // Josh Ritter // The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Stories of lost love read as ghost stories. You see shades of a former lover wherever they used to stand; if you hang around that place for too long, you become convinced you can smell their deodorant. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of someone’s hair in a bar you both used to frequent and you get chills because you know it was them. People attach themselves strongly to places, and it’s amazing how those places can feel so empty once one person has left.

Josh captures these ghosts (some literally) in this song, which I love. A series of images shoot by—empty coathooks, the cellar left bare, every miniature sound making the speaker’s mind leap back to his love, even if it’s just “the wind whistling through the pines.” It’s also a song about welcoming someone else’s ghosts, too. We all have our own shit to deal with, but those ghosts can come in so long as you’re open and willing to let them in. Clearly, this openness isn’t working, but the speaker’s taking a lot of risks here.

The lyrics also turn surprisingly sexy—“I’m saving nickels and I’m saving dimes / I’m gonna kiss you where the sun don’t shine” is a bit of a risqué couplet from Josh, especially since this song feels far more personal than any of his other story-built songs. It’s not just the girl, though: “And all those shadows, gonna kiss them too / just so long as they come in with you.” Kissing someone’s ghosts; I don’t think there’s any greater expression of love than that acceptance. Hot damn.