Josh Ritter’s Poetics

In the summer of 1978 a friend of mine taped the legendary Bruce Springsteen concert at The Roxy in Los Angeles off of KMET/FM. I was about to be a senior in high school. When I sat down to listen to the 3-hour concert the first time, I was in awe. That tape wore out sometime in the eighties and has been lost, but the feeling of listening to that concert has stayed with me thirty years on.

I got that same feeling when I saw Josh Ritter play the Showbox several times here in Seattle, and then again in Vancouver. I’m not here to compare Springsteen and Ritter, because I don’t think you can. Groups like The Gaslight Anthem are more readily comparable. The two songwriters are utterly different, but fused by the same poetic impulses in their early careers. While Springsteen has fine-tuned his songwriting craft into more easily digestible stanzas and choruses, Josh Ritter maintains his literary bent headlong into even one of his newest songs that somehow mixes Sir Galahad, Kenny Rogers and hand jobs – no small miracle.

I also don’t mean to compare Mr. Ritter to Aristotle either, but it seemed a good title – and a bit apt.

Mr. Ritter’s tumbling wordscapes on many songs have a kind of musicality to them that extends the music they’re paired with. Words are strung together that sound great before a single note is applied to them. Say out loud, They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain from Girl in the War. Your lips and tongue feel different, don’t they? This isn’t accidental. Countless songs in Mr. Ritter’s catalogue have that same poetic sensibility to the words that doesn’t quite allow many other singer/songwriters the opportunity to match.

But what Mr. Ritter achieves is cause and action, one of Aristotle’s tenets in Poetics – that character only comes from action. But before we delve into that, let’s look at the visuals that he uses to reveal character. Here’s a great visual from “The Curse,” about a mummy coming back to life after centuries only to fall in love with a woman who’s studying him. Here’s where they first meet: “She dusts off the bed where til now he’s been sleeping/Under mires of stone/The dry fig of his heart/Under scarab and bone/Starts back to its beating…” You can’t buy a line like the dry fig of his heart. Look what’s he’s done here. He’s given you a centuries old heart and given reference to it in the shape of a fruit that is not only of the time, but is rooted in the now. But the real beauty is that he transposes that heart from the mummy to the woman as she succumbs to age later in the song. It’s a brilliant visual effortlessly carried from one character to another.

Aristotle states “poetry is a more philosophical and serious business than history; for poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars.” Mr. Ritter effortlessly binds the two in his song, “The Temptation of Adam.” He takes history’s particulars in imagery from fifties era bomb shelters and missile silos, nuclear fission, apocalyptic visions and astronomy to speak of love that is nearing an end, whether its after the narrator and Marie have lived full lives or Marie has to leave the silo after capturing the narrator’s heart is unclear to me. What’s clear is that Mr. Ritter gives urgency to the love by rooting it in end of world imagery, yet makes it universal and indelible by turning missiles into trees on which love’s initials can be carved in. The song relies on poetry’s metaphorical requirements while remaining true to cinematic story.

Mr. Ritter has stated in several interviews that he got writer’s block, a thing he didn’t believe in until the thing that unstuck him, epic narrative (The Curse), opened his mind up so that he could write again. Again, Aristotle: Epic composition, then: the writing of tragedy, and of comedy also; the composing of dithyrambs; and the greater part of the making of music with flute and lyre; these are all in point of fact, taken collectively, imitative processes.

Mr. Ritter’s newest work contains several epics: The Curse, Folk Bloodbath, Another New World and The Remnant, which I’m still trying to figure out. But who, but a poet uses a word like tessellated in a song? These songs give way to simpler ones: Lantern, See How Man Was Made and Lark. Each, however, has at its core a man searching, trying to find his way, find love, or define the path he’s taking by going out into the world on a boat, via train, horseback or with the help of a lantern’s light.

I don’t mean to diminish Josh Ritter’s music here in the service of his lyrics, but rather that his poetics enriches the notes he puts around them. They aren’t just words, but verbal histories rife with character, place, conflict and resolution within carefully crafted musical landscapes that work beautifully together. For this listener, it’s an enduring pleasure.

And if his current stage show in any indication, he’ll likely be around just as long as Bruce Springsteen.

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