April 11, 2006

Josh Ritter channels Dylan on the accomplished but accessible Animal Years

Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 release, Born To Run, garnered comparisons to the usually incomparable Bob Dylan. While these apparently premature comparisons proved to be reasonable in the years to follow, such praise is always difficult to take. Now, three decades later, the next branch in this musical bloodline appears to be secured. While Josh Ritter is not Mr. Zimmerman, he may very well be the closest thing the 21st century has to a successor to Springsteen.

The Animal Years follows Ritter’s previous three releases, including two independent albums of note (The Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling). The Animal Years is only Ritter’s second album on a major record label. While the newest album is not a revolutionary record by any stretch of the imagination, it illustrates that Ritter is a singer/songwriter with staying power. In typical country and folk style, tracks like “Idaho,” and “Best for the Best” evoke Nebraska-era Springsteen. This Idaho native and Oberlin graduate uses his background as a foundation for his musical and lyrical growth.

“Monster Ballads” suggests a debt to Willie Nelson in its tone and melody. Ritter captures the necessary grittiness of any folk-rocker by utilizing his guttural baritone. “Girl in War” demonstrates the success of this formula. The album not only reminds the listener of the past but also looks ahead to the future of this genre. If Ritter is able to firmly ingrain himself into the public’s musical consciousness, then the future of the singer/songwriter is bright.

Amazingly, Ritter, now 29, did not begin to play guitar until he was 18. It was at that young age that he first heard Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s famous duet, “Girl From North Country,” from Nashville Skyline. After listening to the album, Ritter felt drawn to a life of music. In his own words, Ritter likens that inaugural listening to “meeting that person you know you’re going to marry.”

Ritter’s skill exists in his ability to locate a comfortable middle ground for the audience. He understands the importance of accessibility. His lyrics are intelligent, yet he never falls into the common trap of choosing style over substance and ending up with ponderous pretension.

The maturity of the artist lends a timeless quality to the album. The Animal Years is not an album for the folk canon, but its pastoral quality could exist in a number of eras. Upon hearing the song “Idaho,” I was transported to a time when the American western territories formed but a mysterious frontier. It should come as no surprise that Ritter drew upon the likes of Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson when recording this album in the studio. (Ritter wanted “Monster Ballads” to be reminiscent of Tom Sawyer.) This is ostensibly odd, but after a closer look, it falls right in line with Ritter’s persona. The literary qualities of his music are uniquely American.

Ritter exudes grittiness that rivals that of a young Springsteen. The Animal Years does not take massive risks through delves into the experimental. It serves its purpose as a record, which is to acknowledge past artistic mastery without becoming painfully banal.

In a world riddled with superficiality, Ritter is beginning to establish himself as a consistent artist worth watching. His songs are aural paintings that tell classic stories of tough times. As an artist grounded by his true originality, Josh Ritter is not a carbon copy of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. But like those men, he attempts only to be himself. Over time, the question will no longer be, “Is Josh Ritter the next Springsteen?” but rather “Who is the next Josh Ritter?” Until then, all we can do is sit, wait, and listen.