One wonders how an artist goes about trying to top a career-defining album. How would Springsteen outdo the stark brilliance of Nebraska? How would Dylan follow-up the electric folk mastery of Highway 61 Revisited? Although it may be too soon to tell, The Animal Years could easily be one of those career-defining albums for Josh Ritter. The album, filled with thematic refrains and literary allusions, was and is a work worthy of the aforementioned giants of the folk rock genre. So, how does one do it? Well, the answer is either not to try, or to put out a follow-up album broader in scope and appeal, in some circumstances resulting in a better effort than the previous career-defining work. We all know by now that the Boss released Born in the USA and Dylan busted loose with Blonde on Blonde. Josh Ritter now counts himself again among those heavyweights as he has released The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, that rare follow-up album that could very well outdo its predecessor.
What has remained with Conquests is Josh Ritter’s gift of language. What has changed are the musical palettes upon which he paints those words. Ritter’s journey seems to take place up and down the radio dial, with his subject matters as varied as his choices of musical accompaniment. Dylan, as always, has had a profound effect on Josh Ritter as is evident with the opener, “To the Dogs or Whoever.” Ritter’s rapid-fire delivery brings to mind “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and its video of continuous cue cards being dropped to the ground one after the other. Lyrically, Ritter invokes either the story of Jonah and the Whale, or possibly Pinocchio, as he finds Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane and Joan of Arc in the whale’s belly. Lines that juxtapose Casey Jones with Casey at the bat are particularly clever. The intro to this particular song made me think, however, that I had cued up the opening piano and guitar strains of Arcade Fire’s “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels).” Dylan’s influence is present again with “Next to the Last True Romantic,” in which the protagonist steals hearts and horses, and with all the “women and whiskey around, he can’t tell which is worse, to be dying of thirst or to drown.”
There’s a friend of mine who always seems to get Josh Ritter and Josh Rouse confused. I never understood quite why other than the likeness of their names, but now with Conquests that line got a little blurrier thanks the ’70s AM radio sounds of “Right Moves” and “Open Doors.” Then, there are a couple of tracks included that take cues from the Spoon playbook, with a steady dose of bass and piano, in “Mind’s Eye” and “Rumors.” “Real Long Distance” is a dead ringer for a Carl Newman penned New Pornographers tune. Yet with each of these `homage’ songs, Ritter gives his own spin and his own lyrical wit. Ritter peppers this pop panoply with a few short gems that are probably easy to look over, but really shouldn’t be. The instrumental “Edge of the World” is delicate and serene while “Moons” is forlorn and yearning.
As is sometimes the case with my favorite albums, some of the best tracks are saved for last, including the touching “Still Beating” (complete with a solo trumpet riff at the end, lifted from the Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon”) and the Springsteen-esque “Empty Hearts.” One of the true standouts comes smack dab in the middle of the album with “The Temptation of Adam.” In this song, Ritter sets a love affair in a missile silo in the middle of the Cold War, where love is spurred because of the imminent sense of doom. Ritter’s sense of depth within wordplay is more than evident here, with our characters coming up with a crossword answer, five letters that mean `apocalypse’ being “W.W.I.I.I.,” and that love above ground would have a `half-life.’ The song ends appropriately abruptly as he sings, “You could hold me forever like you’re holding me tonight / I look at that great big red button and I’m tempted…”
In a way, Ritter avoided the temptation to write another The Animal Years by following both pieces of aforementioned advice. He didn’t really try to write another linking song cycle, and he broadened his musical horizons. In doing so, he created a folk pop gem of an album that is both worthy of comparison to his last triumph and avoids those comparisons altogether. I suppose it’s what we should have expected from someone who `created’ his own major in college, that being American History through Folk Music. With Conquests, Ritter’s fifth full-length release, there seems to be no end of creativity.