Another musical icon left us today with the death of the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie. I had a complicated relationship with the Hip. I first discovered them through my roommate Greg, who had their first two albums on tape, and I loved it.
However, it was not to last – my local radio station adopted the Hip as their “House Band” and played them all the time. That would’ve been OK, except that station blared away in a warehouse all day where I worked one of my worst jobs ever. As the months passed I learned to loathe the Hip in much the same way that Alex came to hate his beloved Ludwig Van in “A Clockwork Orange.”
Then, years later my friend Chris reintroduced me to them, when I had enough distance to once again hear the music on its own merits. Nowadays I only have four of their 13 albums, but I like all four of them and may one day get more. I heard some songs from 2009’s “We are the Same” earlier today and I liked it quite a bit.
But enough about future purchases, let’s get to the review of the moment, shall we?
Disc 1062 is…The Animal Years
Artist: Josh Ritter
Year of Release: 2006
What’s up with the Cover? I’m not sure if this is a horse with a very bad swayback, or one with a bite taken out of it. Whatever it’s condition, it seems pretty calm given its back issues and the fact that it is floating on a log.
How I Came To Know It: I just kept bumping into Josh Ritter, reading reviews where critics raved about him or just new releases that hearkened back to all his good works. Finally, this one showed up at #11 on Paste Magazine’s oft-mentioned (by me) “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums” so I gave it a listen. I loved it, but it took a while to find and only recently was lucky to happen upon a used copy at my local record store.
How It Stacks Up: I checked out all of Josh Ritter’s albums in the meantime, and by the time I added “The Animal Years” I had already bought three others. It is early days and I don’t know any of the albums that well yet, but I’m going to start things off with ranking “the Animal Years” at number one. Ordinarily I’d give the other three a cursory scan to see if there was a possibility that I was wrong but screw it – this album is just too good. If I’m proven wrong down the road, that just means I’ve got two amazing albums instead of just one.
Ratings: 5 stars
I’ve had a lot of time to listen to “The Animal Years” over the last three days, mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to stop. The record has a lot to say, and the more you listen the more it reveals itself to you. This is a record about faith as it crumbles at its foundations, and of love full of doubt made stronger by the twists those doubts lay in your soul, like a tree growing up on a windy shore.
There is a bit of all these things on the opening track, “Girl in the War,” as Christian saint Peter expresses his doubts to Paul. The light trill of a mandolin adds a poignancy to the song as Ritter sets up two paragons of righteousness, starting to lose their way. The song begins:
“Peter said to Paul, you know all those words we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go
But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun
I got a girl in the war, man, I wonder what it is we done.”
In just a single stanza, Ritter dumps you into the deep end, questioning the nature of good and evil, free will and the absurdity of a world where war exists, akin to a skinny clown begging a fat oaf for a weapon. How could we come to this? For Ritter, the terror and beauty are in our humanity, which even when it is grieving, is enough to shake the foundations of heaven itself. The song ends with Peter lamenting:
“I got a girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain.”
Not content with a single masterful song, Ritter takes imagery from one song and drops it into another one. “Girl in the War” is the first track, but nine tracks later Ritter invokes Laurel and Hardy a second time on “Thin Blue Flame”:
“If what we loosed on earth will be loosed up on high
It’s a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die
Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please
The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees.”
There’s little hope for those arguing saints when even the pompous bully at last trembles with the terrible choices his authority requires. This is a stark record, where Ritter confronts us and forces us to examine our actions directly, and not through some divine will, for the fault is in us, and he takes us there so subtly and gradually that when you finally arrive it feels as natural as it is inevitable.
On “Wolves” Ritter sings an upbeat ditty about singing to the wolves who later seek him out for his hubris, and four songs later on “Idaho” he sings a mournful dirge even as the narrator clings to his truth “Wolves, oh wolves, can’t you see?/Ain’t no wolf can sing like me.” Later, in the song our bold singer is grounded by the truth of his sins, drawing him, and pinning him like a lodestone to their source:
“Thought that I’d been on a boat
’Til that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads.
I could explore the language and themes and connectivity of “The Animal Years” forever, but time and space compel me to lend some time to Ritter’s vocals, which add depth, complexity and emotional honesty to every song. When he needs it, Ritter has the rock power of Springsteen, and when he needs light and ethereal, he makes like Art Garfunkel, but with more soul.
In the modern era, if you aren’t writing catchy pop hooks and marketing clothing lines and signature perfumes there is a good chance people don’t know you. For good or ill, the era of folk giants like Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel is largely over. I like the variety the new world order generates but I want to be clear about Josh Ritter – if this guy had done his thing in the sixties or seventies he would be a household name by now, and “The Animal Years” would already be a classic album. Twenty years from now that may still happen; time has a way of helping greatness rise to the top.
I don’t compare Ritter to Bob Dylan or Paul Simon lightly, but on “The Animal Years” he earns it. This is one of folk-rock finest albums I’ve ever heard. Ritter seamlessly blends hometown rock of Bruce Springsteen, the social commentary of Dylan and the romantic idealism of Leonard Cohen.
Over the past three days, I’ve listened to this album five or six times through, maybe more. I forget how many. All I’m sure of is that I wanted more, but the Odyssey is a harsh mistress and tells me I must move on. And so as I embark again on this crazy CD Odyssey I’m leaving Ritter Island sooner than I want, and with more than a little regret.
Best tracks: All tracks, but Girl in the War, Monster Ballads and Idaho will break your heart all on their own.