Coming only a year after the stunning The Animal Years, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter finds the Idaho-born troubadour boldly claiming musical territory with a reinvented sound, turning from the meticulous arrangements and somber ruminations of his previous album to a more daring, moxie-charged approach that yields some of the freshest, most captivating songs of his career.
The album opens with the delightfully clattering “To the Dogs or Whoever,” a song that demands repeated listening not only because it’s ridiculously catchy but also because you can only grasp about half the lyrics the first time around. Backed by a jangling guitar and pounding piano and drums, Ritter, as literate as ever, delivers a dizzying array of images and allusions ranging from Joan of Arc to the Crimean War before the chorus storms in like a saloon sing-along: “In the dark I thought I heard somebody callin’/ In the dark I thought I heard somebody call.” That sort of boisterousness is in no short supply on Conquests. Whether they’re tearing through galloping country-western (“Next to the Last Romantic”) or bursting into a Steinway-pounding frenzy (“Real Long Distance”), Ritter and his band mates are definitely having themselves a good time.
On the swaggering, piano-punctuated “Mind’s Eye,” Ritter adopts the persona of a gunslinger who’s grown tired of feeble challengers: “I’m putting up with you lightweights/ Calling me out to the middle of the street/ Oh I’ve got you in my mind’s eye/ I’ve got you in my mind’s eye.” On “Rumors” he adds even more muscle to piano/percussion-headed strut with a husky horn section while on the propulsive “Open Doors,” he strips things down to a spare, low-fi arrangement of acoustic guitar and drums.
Ritter’s songcraft is no less superb when he smooths the edges of his sound. The bittersweet gem “Empty Hearts” coasts on one of his finest gentle melodies. A retro string arrangement and soulful horns fill out the breezy first single, “Right Moves,” as Ritter sings of the difficulty of rekindling a relationship with a former lover: “Am I making all the right moves?/ Am I singing you the right blues?/ Is there a chance that I could call you/ Just to see how you are doing?” On the spellbinding ballad “The Temptation of Adam,” perhaps the best song on the album, strings, muted horns, and a bass clarinet enhance the melancholy of Ritter’s acoustic figures. A love story set in a missile silo, the song moves from tender to unsettling as the narrator worries his relationship with his Marie will dissolve once they return to the surface: “As our time grows short I get a little nervous/ I think about the Big One, W.W. I.I.I./ Would we ever really care the world had ended?/ You could hold me here forever like you’re holding me tonight/ I look at that great big red button and I’m tempted.”
Ritter’s relaxed, free-spirited approach does lead to a few superfluous moments. The brief instrumental “Edge of the World” and the apparently unfinished “Moons” certainly could’ve been omitted, and the ethereal “Wait for Love,” though decidedly pretty, isn’t as strong as the full-bodied version of the song that closes the album. But with an album this good, what are a few short detours?
It’s a mystery how Ritter has been so under-appreciated in the States to this point in his career. As a masterful storyteller, playful and profound, with the ability to clear new paths in traditional genres, Ritter is likely more deserving than any other songwriter of his generation to be lauded as “the next Dylan.” And with a growing list of musical conquests to his credit, it’s not hard to imagine a time when writers will celebrate “the next Josh Ritter.”