Josh Ritter and “Clean Pain” – Beast in Its Tracks Review

I have never totally jumped on the proverbial bandwagon for an album release, but for this one I totally did. I bought concert tickets in December. I pre-ordered the vinyl release, and I got the digital downloads and the CD as a bonus for ordering that. I’ll probably buy a t-shirt at the concert and will gladly promote anything and everything about this release. 

Because it is gorgeous. Exquisite. Painful. Wonderful. Not at all like anything anyone else in the folk world is doing, and actually not at all like anything Josh has ever done to this point. I think this is his eighth studio release. He spent his first three with straightforward, romantic, poetic loveable singable folk songs (“Kathleen”; “Me and Jiggs”; “Snow is Gone”). Then came Animal Years and it blew our collective mind.  It was deep and dark, poetic on a whole other level, in many ways cryptic and Biblical, yet universally understood:

“And angels everywhere were in my midst /
In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed /
I wondered what it was I’d been looking for up above /
Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up.”

Awesome. Beautiful. Profound.

Then came Historical Conquests and So Runs the World Away which were progressively darker, clunkier, and at times purposely atonal. He did murder ballads. He wrote of death and coldness and, while he did always sing of redemption (“Lantern”) one definitely felt a lot of brooding. So no one could have predicted what came next.

A lullaby project. Bringing in the Darlings, a rich, wondrous EP,  a collection of tunes that Josh said he just couldn’t figure out how to include anywhere else. Makes sense. There really just wasn’t that much space for gentleness or delicacy next songs with lyrics like “..the thistles eat the thorns / And the roses have no chance / And it no wonder that the babies / Come out crying in advance.”

So it seemed that Mr Ritter was at a crossroads, thematically and artistically. How he loved to explore the dark energies! But still he could never fully turn away from the innocent and pure. So it was in the middle of that artistic crossroads, that real tragedy came. Josh’s marriage ended in divorce. Ouch. And what album came from THAT dark place?

Beast in its Tracks. A light, gentle, airy, sad, but starkly hopeful record! Amazing!

Josh Ritter has established himself as an artist that thrives on opacity with depth.  He is the modern folk master of that, actually. Yet on this record he is mercifully straightforward. Not  blunt, just open, honest, real. Nothing to hide and nothing more to lose, his instrumentation weighs light on the listener’s consciousness and his lyrics hang delicately in the air.

And lest you think that he is not a man in mourning, the album cover features the line “The world is what it is. Everyone’s gonna hurt like hell sometimes.”  So the pain is real, but so is the new emotional plane and healthy psychological place he’s coming to. His emotions are clean and the notes pure.

Not so long ago I wrote that music can heal if we let it, and judging from Beast, it seems that Josh knows that truth better than anyone.


2 thoughts on “Josh Ritter and “Clean Pain” – Beast in Its Tracks Review

  1. Ah! You write about it so brilliantly. I love Josh Ritter. Went to see him on Sunday night and trying to write about the experience. I think that was the 10th time. He’s a lyrical genius, my hero!

  2. amyrob says:

    Thanks for the comment! I have only seen him once but it was a profound moment in time. That was back in March and I, like you, still have not found the words to adequately convey the magnitude and beauty of the experience. Keep trying though!

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