The Bad Actor

Josh Ritter Got Divorced.

Unassumingly, in the second biggest newspaper in Boston, in the middle of an article about a series of concerts called “the Valentines Day Massacre,” referring to his marriage to Dawn Landes, answering a question which innocently asked about their writing practices, “we’ve actually decided to split, which is hard, but is going to be better in the end.” Old level-headed Josh. He had a child with Dawn Ritter, had lived with her, has been married, but it “is going to be better in the end.” The interview went on from there.

Josh Ritter (and Dawn Landes)

Josh Ritter (and Dawn Landes)

I saw Ritter on that tour. Terminal Five, the cologne gunked bottle service wasteland of  midtown west, the venue that seems to grow a foot bigger and a modicum less interesting every time someone says how much they hate it. He played joyously, seeming as OK as the quote in the magazine suggested. Played “Kathleen,” which I can only imagine was tough for him. You know, everyone’s got their own way of coping, I know. But after The Beast in its Tracks, all the OK feels malingering, and it’s all bullshit, and I don’t know why he’s doing it.

Funny story about a breakup 1: __________________________________________________________ New Jersey Transit ___________________________________________  sobbing in Newark Penn Station!!!!

Normally, Josh Ritter stays distant, smart, creative. It’s his skill as a writer and the depth of his imagination which enable him to write a song like “The Temptation of Adam.” The song is a story about the post-apocalypse, an engagement with our military industrial complex (what’s left after everything else? A giant missile with an american flag painted on it), and a bunch of words that will make you think about love, in the way a good love song does. It is all of these things, but it is not about Josh Ritter.

Ritter has another song, “Folk Bloodbath” where Stagger Lee acts as cupid, and another about atoms, the big bang and planetary rotations which is actually about the merging of two lives. All of these are love songs in one way or another. Josh Ritter was in all likelihood in love when he wrote them, but these songs, you will know without working too hard, are not about Josh Ritter. They are full of genuine sentiment, but they are fictions, and it takes a good songwriter to do that, let me tell you.

Photo credit Laura Wilson/KXPN

In contrast, Josh Ritter’s newest album finds him treading pretty gunky, stagnant lyrical water. He compares his broken heart to “fallen debris” (“Hopeful”), refers to his ex as a ghost on at two songs (“A New Lover,” “Joy To You, Baby,”), and uses phrases like “little white lies.”   And then there are lines which make me very uncomfortable.

These days I’m feelin’ better about the man that I am
There’s some things I can change and there’s others I can’t
I met someone new now I know I deserve

I never met someone who loves the world more than her
She has been through her own share of hard times as well
And she has learned how to tear out the heaven from hell
Most nights I’m alright still all rocks roll down hill

These lines from “Hopeful” don’t feel like lines from a song. They feel like the kind of speech someone gives when they drunk-corner you at a party, the kind of things they repeat to themselves a few times so they can make the inflections convincing. Yet it all feels like bad acting and it’s all phony and no one is buying it. There are other examples of lyrics as egregiously false as this one, but what’s the point in kicking a horse when its heartbroken as shit.

Now, arguably, such moments are meta. Maybe these songs were written when Ritter really was feeling better, when his mind was clear and he was back to living an uninterrupted life, and he was trying to recreate the feeling of lying about how OK you are.  But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.   The problems, then, with The Beast in its Tracks are twofold.

Problem One.  It came too soon. Despite what Ritter claims in interviews, or what the reviews say, many songs on The Beast in its Tracks are doing a bad job of what they’re aiming for- trying to tackle the pain of break-up in Ritter’s usual removed, literate tone. There’s too much anger and hurt for that tone to work, and that because Ritter doesn’t seem to have processed his emotions as much as he claims he has.

Problem Two. Problem two is that, because The Beast in its Tracks came too soon, a fair amount of it isn’t very good. Which is shocking, coming from such a consistently satisfying and original songwriter like Ritter. Well, I mean, it’s shocking and it’s not. The crazy thing about the end of longterm relationships is that there is a period that feels like mourning. If that sounds melodramatic, well, of course it is, but it’s also about as accurate a description as your likely to find. And, probably, any art you make relating to the deceased relationship during that mourning period is going to be shit, it is going to be too raw, too hurt, too pained to be any good or provoke anything except cringing from an audience. You’re in a weird period where you’re writing explicitly to someone you’re no longer speaking with.

He may have a new lover, as he says over and over, and over, and over on this new album, but the songs on The Beast in its Tracks are not over Dawn Landes.

There are no funny stories about breakups. Arguably, there are no stories, no narratives to breakups.  Just hurt that has no timeframe.

So did this album have to come out at all? I’ve written a hell of a lot of breakup poetry myself, but most of it stays in the documents folder.  I can understand why Ritter wrote these songs and how they might have helped him.  I can understand how recording them might have seemed like a nobel experiment and might have actually proven to be cathartic.  But why share them?  Why did Ritter feel the need to share these songs written so entirely for Dawn Landes, who will never listen to them.

Well, maybe because of “Appleblossom Rag.” It’s the most devastating and the best thing on the album. It starts with a recording of a female voice talking, a voice I’m imagining to be Landes. The song, struggles to hold itself together as it also struggles to cover up that recording.  It’s a devastating and openly wounded- no attempts at saying things are fine, no “I’ve got a new lover.”   Just a really sad, really deflated, really beautiful folksong.  No harumphing drums, in fact nothing breaking the quiet.

And that’s not the only moment on the album that reminds me of what I love about Josh Ritter.  In the gothic, wonderful, wordy “Nightmares,” Ritter mutters

I know where the nightmares sleep
On what fodder do they feed
I’d been awake so long by then
They thought that I was one of them.

And “Joy To You Baby”  has the excellent line “If I’d never had met you/You couldn’t have gone/But then I couldn’t have met you”. Even though the rest of the verse dulls the intensity of those lines, I’m going to let him have that one, too.

Elsewhere in “Joy to You Baby,” Ritter sings to Landes, “Joy to you baby, wherever you sleep,” but that line tells  how far he has to go before he’s as ok as he’s projecting on large swaths of this album. When you’re doing ok, really ok, you know exactly where the person sleeps. You’ve refriended them on facebook or stopped impulsively going to their still-unfreinded profile. You’ve seen them snuggled into the neck of someone new or can imagine as much without all the nausea. You know where they’re sleeping and you realize, knowing this, that you’re not crushed by the thought anymore. Maybe by then you’ve met someone new who would never qualify as a rebound.  Maybe you haven’t- that’s not a requirement for feeling better. But what’s happened is the person who you used to love has gone from being insidious, from invading every thought and every vision, to being cataloged away.  Despite what it will tell you, The Beast in its Tracks is a record of what come before that.

Hopeful”, “The Appleblossom Rag” and “Joy To You Baby” are from the confounding new Josh Ritter  album The Beast in Its Tracks.

The Bad Actress” is from the Josh Ritter album Hello Starling.

Also, Superchunk Fans,  Good NewsBad News!

Also, have you heard of Young Fathers?  I will write more about them soon, but for now, listen to Young Fathers.

Deadline” is from the Young Fathers EP Tape One.

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