The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter Label: Sony/Victor
The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is a regal title -- so stately, so literary, so…well…big. For a guy who’s barely 30, born to the Idaho heartland and reared, quite obviously, on Springsteen and Dylan, such an exclamatory album title would lead one to believe that Ritter has finally arrived. On his fifth full-length release, having seen every little success matched with countering disappointment, Ritter probably won’t have to release his own records anymore, or worry that whatever label did scoop him up would soon go under (like his last one, V2 America, did last year). Now securely aboard behemoth Sony, Ritter can concentrate on writing clever songs, whether about the state of the nation, voices in his head, or mythological chicks.
Joan of Arc, Calamity Jane and Florence Nightingale all get honored in the opener “To the Dogs or Whoever,” a spry, toe-tapping good time, flooded with jingle-jangle guitars and organs, and a novel-in-three-minutes storyline that is pure Dylan. “Mind’s Eye” then kicks with a nifty “London Calling”-like intro, though not nearly as rambunctious. In fact, Ritter never really opens up the amps and goes for broke. He’s a folk singer in his purest form, a folk singer who swears by melody and who, for the first time on Historical Conquests, opted for writing on piano instead of guitar. The result is understandably softer, less edgy, less rock than, say, The Golden Age of Radio, although a vintage classic rock guitar solo can be found on the John Lennon-sounding “Right Moves.”
No doubt the Beatles helped shape a young Ritter. He acknowledges that on a conceptual level, Paul McCartney’s second solo album, Ram, serves him in his songwriting process to this day. (Intriguing for a kid who would not be born for another five years when the album was released.) Rest assured his mentor’s penchant for melody and ability to craft damn catchy pop songs comes shining through on “Open Doors” and “Empty Hearts.” “Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart,” Ritter pleas, while a studio full of guitars, pianos, percussion and horns parade about him. The McCartney connection can’t fully be laid to rest until mentioning the album-closing “Wait for Love (You Know You Will)”, a jovial, arm-in-arm sing-a-long that might be as infectious as “Silly Love Songs.”
As you start peeling back the layers, Josh Ritter is a pretty complex dude. The more I read about him, the more I want to read about him. He’s highly intelligent, very cerebral and contextual in his interpretation of life in song, and oh, the boy can croon. For years I’ve been seeing his name included on lists of artists to watch out for -- the up-and-comers, if you will. He’s hardly an overnight success, but with Historical Conquests, Ritter may just be able to pull all his past works together and find a springboard to the next level -- whatever that level may be in this not-so-golden age of radio.