I think it helped that I didn't know Josh Ritter's newest, So Runs the World Away, was coming out until the day it arrived, so I had no expectations whatsoever. Even if I did know I'm not sure how high my anticipation would have been. Ritter has only gotten better with each release, but he's yet to make a perfect album. His pre-Animal Years releases are mostly average with a few bright spots. Starting with that 2006 album you could begin to see the potential Ritter held. He was firmly rooted in a folk lineage (via contemporary alt country) but was also willing to stretch beyond it, as with the epic "Thin Blue Flame." Then there was the following year's Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which saw him energized with hooks and power. At first it rubbed me a little wrong—it felt a little too blatantly crossover—but in time I was totally won over. The first half of that album is a total joy with bright spot after bright spot. Somewhere in the middle it starts to get a little less consistent, trading back and forth between winners ("Wait for Love," "Next to the Last Romantic," "Empty Heart") and respectably average material.
The new one, by contrast, is Ritter's most consistently great album from beginning to end. It's more relaxed than Historical Conquests, never picking up to a pace like "To the Dogs or Whoever" or "Right Moves," but in the end I think it's better for it. Ritter has always been a confident songwriter, but on this album he seems more so than ever, as if acknowledging not only that he's great but that he belongs to a tradition. "Folk Bloodbath" is a terrific send-up of traditional murder ballads, while "The Curse" plays like a classic all-verses-no-chorus folk epic.
"The Curse," by the way, is probably my favorite song of the year by any artist. Maybe it's just all the Slint I've been listening to, with their songs about vampires and shipwrecks, but I find Ritter's song about a mummy awakened by a woman after 1,000 years of sleep to be the most heartbreaking and romantic songs I've heard in a long time. Ritter tells the story with remarkable detail as the woman brings the mummy from Egypt to New York, where he becomes a museum attraction and the source of her fame as a scholar. Over the rest of her life their relationship evolves; each time Ritter sings the refrain—"She asked, 'Are you cursed? / I said 'I think that I'm cured'"—he touches on the mixture of happiness and doom that is wrapped up in any tale of real love. Every verse is touching and funny and melancholy at once.
It's the high point of the album and among the high points of Ritter's oeuvre. The rest of the album rises pretty high too—"Change of Time," "Lock," "See How Man was Made"—though maybe not, overall, as high as Historical Conquests' highest points. At the same time it never sinks, ever, to average or below. ("Lantern" is probably the closest it comes to a low point—a little too cheesy but still a good song.) For that reason So Runs the World Away becomes the most consistently pleasurable album Ritter has done so far.
- Josh Ritter: The Curse