I found myself dreading the release of Josh Ritter’s latest album, which is strange, because he’s been a favorite of mine since I first heard The Animal Years back in 2006. His songwriting is truly superior, and he’s got a talented and versatile band supporting him. If Fare Forward were electing a poet laureate, he would be my nominee.
His attitude toward Christianity is an especially powerful current under his music. His lyrics are saturated with biblical and theological language, but unlike most of what passes for Christian music these days, Ritter has the depth and spirit to wrestle with God. His lyrical theology might be described as misotheistic, but his complaints and accusations are born of the real paradoxes and difficulties of the Christian faith. I largely agree with a poster on A Christian Thing who wrote last year: “What I appreciate about Josh’s work, both in his songs and his novel, is that he doesn’t let go of disturbing things. His art begins in the chinks and flaws that modern culture seeks to hide, and that signal its eventual doom. And he doesn’t flinch.”
This unflinching treatment of paradox, which is reminiscent of Job or the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, reminds me of Dorothy Sayers’s affirmation that “the dogma is the drama.” The naked, problematic truth is stranger and grander and more beautiful than any fiction, even if the truth breaks or alienates us from ourselves. In an essay entitled “Strong Meat” (Hebrews 5:14) Sayers writes, “It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God Who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
But the reason that I’ve been dreading The Beast in Its Tracks is because I was worried that this time, Ritter might flinch. Though I generally agree with the poster quoted above, there have been warning signs of possible cave-ins or cop-outs. The final verse of “Thin Blue Flame” comes to mind. Having just written about a world where “beating hearts blossom into walking bombs,” he somehow manages to conclude that “heaven’s so big, they’re ain’t no need to look up.” It’s a last ditch retreat into cognitive dissonance. And it’s not an isolated incident. There have been other whiffs of feel-good, happy-thinking. So I’ve been worried on this album that he might stray into a solidly Upper Middle Brow neighborhood and start “peddling uplift in the guise of big ideas.”
I also worried that this set of songs would be too personal. Ritter had acknowledged the album was about his failed marriage and that he was working through his feelings. On his earlier records, Ritter is dealing with big stuff: God, war, existential aloneness, justice, et cetera. Now, he’s putting out a whole album about Josh Ritter. Color me skeptical. And on the album, he is indeed a smaller person. Beast has its moments of what I can only describe as “intense pettiness.” But occasionally, Ritter also manages to transcend his newfound smallness, and he is undiminished as a craftsman. One of the album’s standouts is “A Certain Light,” in which he starts off praising his new lover to his old one, but at the chorus confesses, “And she only looks like you / In a certain kind of light.” The song is a pleasant reminder that Ritter hasn’t fully succumbed to self-delight.
In “Joy to You Baby,” which is pretty obviously meant to be the album’s flagship tune, Ritter might approach a new kind of excellence. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care much for the song. But it reminds me a little of Eliot’s evaluation of Yeats. He wrote, “I have, in early essays, extolled what I call impersonality in art… There are two forms of impersonality: that which is natural to the mere skilled craftsman, and that which is more and more achieved by the maturing artist… The second impersonality is that of the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol.” True, the poetry of “Joy to You Baby” is not particularly remarkable. Ritter has written better lyrics. But as a record of a particular life experiencing a universal reality that isn’t entirely hackish or trite, it’s worth a listen or two.
Overall, my dread of The Beast in Its Tracks was unfounded. Musically, Ritter is at the top of his game. Lyrically, he’s not far off it. True, I hope that now that he’s got this out of his system he might go back to writing about something outside his own head. But I suppose if he were to continue in this vein for a season, I could live with it. And I might even be pleasantly surprised.