Music: Josh Ritter * * * *
So Runs the World Away (Independent Records)
Two years in the making, Josh Ritter's fifth studio album was, according to the man himself, the most difficult of his career.
"Nothing felt right, nothing felt original," he says now, when recalling his mindset during its formative days. Furthermore, he questioned his abilities shortly after the release of his last record, Historical Conquests, and although it was well received by some, it lacked the spark of earlier albums Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling.
Confidence issues and lengthy tinkering don't bode well for any album, but fans of the Idaho native need not fear. So Runs the World Away -- named after a line in Hamlet -- is Ritter's most intriguing and rewarding album to date. It's easily his most diverse.
The first curveball arrives at the very beginning when the album opens with a short instrumental number redolent of Glasvegas's treated guitars and it offers a pointer to the ambitious and unexpected paths the music strays into.
But as befitting someone with a yen for the classic songwriting of the American greats, there are several songs where his composition gifts are especially apparent.
Change of Time boasts a beautifully picked acoustic guitar and understated vocal which is elevated to a special place thanks to its rousing harmonies at the end.
The Curse is the album's centrepiece. Piano-led and beautifully produced by long-term collaborator Sam Kassirer, it features the sort of whip-smart lyrics that might have come from the pen of Leonard Cohen. Rattling Locks is jittery and abrasive and sounds like a lost Nick Cave song. It features backing vocals from Ritter's wife, the folk singer Dawn Landes.
Folk Bloodbath recalls Cave too. It references the fabled African-American criminal Stagger Lee, a figure who provided the subject for a 1996 Nick Cave song of the same name, and this track is easily its match.
There are several surprises. The Lovely Lark, for instance, doffs its hat to Graceland-era Paul Simon and is bound to work best in a live setting. Speaking of which, Ritter's Irish tour kicks off in the Radisson, Galway, tomorrow and includes a visit to Dublin's spanking new Grand Canal Theatre on Tuesday.
Burn it: The Curse; Change of Time; Rattling Locks