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Complex tracks complete Ritter’s Latest

James Costa | Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It isn’t often when a record comes out that takes many listens before even the most obvious of its complexities begin to emerge.

But in “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” the singer-songwriter constructs an environment intent on creating a deep and profound image through intricate lyrics and instrumental sways. It’s not a pop record, which makes it a little bit tougher to grasp. With many songs not relying on a catchy hook or chorus, the listener must actively engage in each element of the record to fully appreciate its power.

In Ritter’s mastery of creating a visual environment to his songs, he often uses metaphor. One of the gems of the record, “The Temptation of Adam,” tells the story of a young couple falling in and out of love in the shadow of the cold war and the curious romantic possibility of their growth in the presence of World War III.

The song’s reliance on gripping imagery draws the listener to the vague reality in which Ritter views the world and finds his songs. It also allows the listener to imagine the world that Ritter sings of so vividly that it seems to exist in a place not far from here.

Part of the enduring appeal of the album is Ritter’s insistence on incorporating different genres into his musicianship. Over the course of 14 songs, the listener is treated to music ranging in style from country to alternative to pop. Yet regardless of which genre a song seems to fall into, they all remain under the umbrella of folk music. This feat is extraordinary and quite a testament to Ritter’s songwriting abilities.

The roughness of some of the recordings only enhances the album’s appeal when taken into context. It is clear that Ritter was not intent on creating a polished and studio-finished quality to the music when creating the record. Rather, the best moments of the album come when it feels like you just found an old record in your grandmother’s attic and are the first person to be listening to its delicate songs in decades. It’s an antiquated feel that becomes stirringly present as the album progresses on its long journey.

Pulling from a multitude of inspirations as well as his own head, the listener can only guess at what Ritter had in mind for each song. There are moments throughout the record inspired by such ranging acts as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams and Sufjan Stevens – just to name a few. Perhaps what is so extraordinary about the record is that when you seem to figure out where Ritter is coming from, another note sounds and your perception is forced to change to meet the new level of the song.

The record is not a rip off of Dylan or Springsteen or Adams or Stevens. Rather, it is an intricate delving into the conquests of John Ritter on a brilliant scale.

If you’re looking for a record that’ll keep you pressing repeat long after the first listen, this is the one. It’s not the simplest record out there, but it’s an immensely satisfying one. There isn’t a wasted moment on the album, which these days is pretty special.