Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

It’s clear that, in personal terms at least, the wheels simply fell off his wagon

It’s clear that, in personal terms at least, the wheels simply fell off his wagon

Josh Ritter - The Beast In Its Tracks

If Josh Ritter’s life were a novel then, in purely narrative terms, it was about time something went wrong for his character. The rise of his stardom in recent years has been fascinating to watch and it’s been interesting to see an artist step up to the world of the old fashioned major labels and succeed, especially without having to ‘sell out’ at any point. The boy seems to have existed on charm, talent and determination alone and his story is the kind of old-school triumph (years of trying, moving to Ireland, catching a break and then upwards from there!) that many wide eyed youngsters cling to as the kind of live they wish to lead. His is a true good-boy-done-good story, and there aren’t many people who’ve met him who have a bad  word to say about him. A couple of years ago, Josh probably couldn’t believe his luck. Everything was going great. Great work, great band, great wife, great…… and then his marriage broke up.

Then he went running one day and nearly killed himself.

It’s clear that, in personal terms at least, the wheels simply fell off his wagon. Like I said before, in narrative terms, something was destined to take a turn for the worse but life isn’t meant to be held in narrative terms. Dismissing things like a divorce into something as trite as a narrative device ridicules it, removing all the complexities and emotions that get bottled up in it. The whys and hows that brought the divorce about aren’t important, nor are they any of our business quite frankly but Josh has clung to his work as a means of purifying and clarifying the experience. You see, if you didn’t know about it already, The Beast In Its Tracks is a divorce album but it’s not one you need to tread too carefully around.

Josh said live on stage recently, “This album began life being about a divorce but ended up being about everything after. And that’s great.” Well, that may be true, but it still takes a bit of getting used to. Why? Because this is a very different Josh Ritter we’re introduced to here. Gone are the many characters that have filled his previous albums, no actors, no mummies and gone is the theatricality too. The drama of Temptation of Adam or the sheer theatrics of Next To The Last Romantic are long forgotten. For starters, most of the actual ‘drama,’ or conflict the songs revolve around has already happened. There’s nothing immediate here. Instead these songs are reflections on a theme. It’s an album made in hindsight and it’s a wonderfully mature piece of work, although it seems so flimsy on first listen.

Musically, everything’s quite light and fragile. Songs revolve around slight little licks and motifs, circling around your head without ever really penetrating your consciousness. The band are used sparingly, in fact they appear as almost ghostly apparitions, supporting Josh from a distance. They quietly go about their business without ever being intrusive. The effect is that at first the album seems to float gently by and you’re left wondering where that sense of occasion, that boldness and that sense of drama that we’ve all grown to know and love from Ritter has gone? Of course, this time Josh isn’t playing. This is an album about a man trying to rebuild himself, reconstruct his own sense of who he is, where he belongs and how he should take his place in the world around him. It’s an unflinchingly honest record and one that’s quite profound.

Of course, it’s exquisitely played (The Royal City Band certainly know their way around a song) and it’s impeccably produced but its biggest triumph is that it’s not the petty, squabbling, self-pitying and impenetrable album it could have been. Ok, it has its moments, there’s a wonderfully sharp closing line to New Lover that you need to look out for but mainly it shows Josh’s ability to distance himself through songwriting and look at things objectively. Let’s look at New Lover again, where he sings, “I feel like a miser, I feel low and mean. For accusing you of stealing what I offered you for free.” That’s a line of real maturity and one that many writers working purely off emotion could not have arrived at.
The Beast In Its Tracks is an album of recovery and as such it’s probably not one you’ll return to as often as some others which are simply there to entertain you. In fact, it’s safe to say that this will probably be the Josh Ritter album that gets the least rotation in my household, but that is by no means a criticism of its value and worth. At the end of it, you’ll be glad to hear he’s in a happier place and if you’re still looking for the old-fashioned melodrama of his earlier work? Well, we’ll just have to wait for the next album.

If you give this album a chance, and you will need to, it will repay you. There’s a well worn cliché where every now and again an artist ‘has to make an album for themselves and nobody else.” Usually that cliché is brought out when the album itself isn’t worth listening to, or when the artist has disappeared up their own arsehole and produced some kind of pompous, self-righteous nonsense. It’s clear that Josh Ritter needed to make this album.  What’s so impressive about The Beast In Its Tracks is that it’s still worth you giving your time and money over to. It’s an album of real charm and subtle power. It’s honest, uncompromising and incredibly mature. Sometimes real life is dramatic enough.

These days I’m feeling better about the man that I am
There’s things I can’t change and there’s other I can