Review Summary: Is it Bob Dylan? Is it Bruce Springsteen? No, it's .... Josh Ritter?
Music, like fashion, moves in cycles. Every new fad, every new thrill, is built firmly on the bones and ashes of its predecessors. Hence we have styles like ska and flared jeans making their triumphant return in the mid 90s after dying spectacular deaths 30 years earlier. The dramatics of KISS and their ilk are conclusively put to rest by Nirvana, only to be replaced by My Chemical Romance in the next decade. Indeed, most of the 'new' music released in the past decade has been a wonderful conglomeration of everything that has come before, subtly tweaked and edited.
Initially, that seems like a negative thing. We are taught to crave innovation; to seek the brand new around every corner. We consign old music to the dustbin, always searching for a new fix. But it is precisely this cycle that allows us to listen to old and tired music with a new wonder. After a style has been dead twenty years, it's almost like hearing it for the first time again. Indie music has taken this proposition and run with it; in the past few years dozens of old and tired genres have reared their heads to be recombined with modern stylings. For the most part, these attempts have been startlingly successful. Rather than being rejected as derivative, artists such as M. Ward and Iron & Wine are hailed for embracing archaic recording methods and reintroducing the beauty of raw folk music to the masses.
But even these artists weave cautiously. The attempts to resuscitate old and beloved genres steer well clear of any perceived controversies or imitations. While M. Ward's vocal style certainly recalls Johnny Cash, he isn't attempting to dethrone him. In contrast, Josh Ritter comes out with all guns blazing on "Historical Conquests." Sporting a grandiose album title well beyond his station as a humble songwriter from Idaho, Josh Ritter goes even farther by attempting to grapple with two musical giants: Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
On the surface, any comparison between Josh Ritter and these artists sounds absurd. And indeed, as the opening guitar on "To the Dogs or Whoever" begins to jangle, Ritter's eerie similarity to Dylan's phrasing on 'Hurricane' is jarring, rather than convincing.
But you'd be missing out spectacularly if you turned off the album off after the ill-advised opener. The rest of the album is, without doubt, stunning. Ritter possesses both a lyrical swagger and gift of phrasing that makes each and every song instantly gripping. His choruses appear to be slung around at random rhythms, but end up falling with devastating effect on just the right note. In "Rumors," every word seems like a bullet shot straight at the listener. It is precisely this ability to make lyrical verses stand on their own that distinguished the folk of Dylan from his contemporaries. Startlingly, Ritter pulls it off with almost equal aplomb, and manages to add distinctive hooks to his choruses as well. By the time he sings "I traded all the innocence I ever had for // hesitation" in the lead single 'Right Moves', it's over; Ritter has won his gambit. If Ritter is just an imitator, he's a damn good one -- an artist who can both copy a Monet painting and add his own flourishes.
And Ritter isn't just a one-trick pony, sticking to established themes and moods. "The Historical Conquests"is astonishing for its depth of exploration in the folk genre. Ritter transitions from a rolling western (The Next to the Last Romantic) to a quiet love song (Still Beating) and back to an anthem (Empty Hearts) without managing to lose any of his listener's attention, or respect, on the way. The album is at times both driving and introspective -- in short, its the kind of complete album that so rarely comes out these days. Rather than being a bunch of singles cobbled together, it's a piece that needs to be appreciated in its entirety.
Ritter certainly hasn't "conquered" the ghosts of musical history in his latest album. But he has managed to do what few others have done. Rather than being dismissed as a mere imitator, Ritter is able to tread the same ground as the musical giants without quaking in his boots..