So Runs the World Away
Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s fifth release, So Runs the World Away, is a breathtaking record, taking the tradition of folk storytelling back to its grassy roots. It plays like a sweet lullaby but, lyrically, is deep and labyrinthine. So Runs the World Away is a writer and reader’s record. What it may lack in pop tendency, it more than compensates with incomparable prose that certainly thrusts Ritter in the ranks of greats like Dylan, Waits, and Donovan.
Ritter gives us theatre with So Runs the World Away, mindful to open with a quiet ethereal intro, seamlessly transitioning to “Change of Time,” with gentle picking and battle-march drums. Repetition of the mantra, “Time, love, time, love, time, love,” feel like a lover’s loveless mutterings before he accepts loss. It is with “Change of Time,” like a second-act low point, that it feels an old record is ending and a new one begins.
“The Curse” is the record’s clear standout. Ritter’s whisper is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley and the orating calls out Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and “Chelsea Hotel.” Though Ritter cloaks the love story in the obscure relationship between an archeologist and a mummy, “The Curse” is as believable an opera as any. Ritter makes us feels like we are on a merry-go-round of despair with lyrics like, “And one day the dried fig of its heart stops its beating,” and a contrastingly up-tempo piano waltz.
What makes “The Curse” so incredible, besides being a genius variation on a common theme, “Another New World” shares in its exploration of love, death, and survival, and the tests and triumphs that each present. “Another New World” is an historical epic hailing man’s love of searching the unknown on a beloved, but tragically damned, vessel with stilling beauty. Ritter whisper-signs this tale of failure with the restraint of a seasoned bard.
“Southern Pacifica” helps the record to pick up speed with sing-along lyrics “Remember me Roxy Anne, You know she’s still lovely.” The most gorgeous line of the record lives in “Southern Pacifica.” Ritter sings, “And thunder through unknowns, In the phosphorous white glow, Of a saber-tooth bones in the dusk,” referring to a night escape into the unknown, a common motif on this record.
So Runs the World Away doesn’t want for moodiness. “Rattling Rocks” is the record’s darkest canvas. Heady and brooding, Ritter channels Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand,” with a similar sing-talk cadence. Ritter goes bleak with lyrics like, “Ain't nothing new about the world that I ain't learned from watching you go by,” and “Black hole black hole, are your eyes as empty as they look?” Likewise, “The Remnant,” the record’s literary highlight, is a swampy, bluesy track (think The Black Keys’ “Goodbye Babylon”) that chronicles a mountain man’s quest with a stomach wrenchingly beautiful appreciation for nature and astronomy. Ritter sings dense and tongue tying lines like these with poise and humility: “The sawdust swirls in the fins of the bullheads, The craters you made when you lay down dreaming, Strange constellations that gave you new meaning, By the teeth marks you made on bones from the ice age.” In the same morose vain, “See How Man Was Made” is a song of pleading and longing decrying the solitude of man that is short but not sweet. Ritter sounds like he’s stuck in a dark echo and wants out.
Ritter heads back to his origins with “Folk Bloodbath,” a compact little song that could be on the Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtracks, “Lark,” and the closer “Long Shadows,” which have an undeniable Simon & Garfunkel air. Ritter, and the record, seem at their most calm in “Lark” when Ritter sings, “I am assured the Peace will come to me.”
“Orbital,” a psychedelic experiment akin to Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” or “Cosmic Wheels,” and “Lantern,” which sounds uncannily like the late Vic Chesnutt, are So Runs The World Away’s cheeriest, and least gritty tracks. There’s something to be said for mixing in less heavy songs with the dark ones, but here, they feel like throwaways.
Though So Runs the World Away has been met with mixed reviews, it has an undeniable appeal that builds and builds. Ritter’s talents as a songwriter, if they were not before, are certainly cemented here.
More by this writer:
The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever
Trainwreck - The Wreckoning