Robert Caro, an American biographer, once said,”You come in off the street, through the doors of the theater. You sit down. The lights go down and the curtain goes up. And you’re in another world.”
“Curtains,” the first song on Josh Ritter’s fifth LP So Runs the World Away, prepares listeners for their 13 track journey into Ritter’s world. As “Curtains” ends, and the symbolic curtain rises, a flash of white light envelopes the listener and entraps them in a state of sensory paralysis where listening is the only option. A hyperbole, yes, but, not by much. Ritter’s new conquest is pure music gold. The album has a wonderful diversity of songs that combine ethereal sounds, bare acoustic riffs, Ritter’s keen sense of the existential lyric and his Springsteen-like croon (and troubadour status). Each song is engaging and brilliant in its own way, never repeating the same musical concept twice. Ritter has proven his ability to create skilled music before, but, as Bob Boilen of NPR’s “All Song’s Considered” program said, “this one took my breath away.”
In the album’s expansive “Another New World,” Ritter tells the tale of a polar explorer who is forced to sacrifice his beloved ship in order to survive the cold. It is a maritime love story; a type of lyric that Ritter has mastered. The explorer’s ship is called the Annabel Lee. Now, quick English lesson. Who has a poem named “Annabel Lee.” The only difference is the poem is not about a ship. Edgar Allen Poe wrote the story of Annabel Lee who is frozen and killed by angels. Ritter’s story is similar. His guitar picking sounds like the trochaic rhythm in Poe’s poem. This is a wonderful touch that may often go unnoticed. It is important to realize how intelligent Ritter, the son of two neuroscientists actually is…in English? What? Anyway, the song is euphonious and the lyric is masterful. It almost sounds like an optimistic dirge which I understands makes no sense at all. I believe the Annabel Lee can be used as a working symbol for Ritter’s album. Ritter himself is the mariner, and his companion, the ship, is his work on this album. In order to fully understand the album’s intimate intricacies, we must take apart the boat and, in a sense, use its contents for their potential warmth. So, let’s explore the inner portions of Ritter’s Annabel Lee.
The album, or ship for our purposes, consists of several of Ritter’s creative ideas. We are sent on a journey through an elegiac opener, to the odd affair between a recently awoken mummy and a pretty archaeologist (that is most similar to Ritter’s “The Temptation of Adam,” an unexpected lyrical chef-d’oeuvre documenting a romance in a nuclear missile silo), to a mock “Folk Bloodbath” that pins classic murder ballad names against each other, into a Paul Simon like “Lark,” and then back out again into a scientific/angelic “Orbital.” And, in the frenzy of travel, Ritter never misses an emotional moment. Each song has an underlying message behind its tender melody and wonderfully scripted lyric. This is what propels this album to a new level.
Ritter ends “Another New World” with a repetition of the verse:
“Sometimes at night in my dreams
comes the singing of some unknown tropical bird
and I smile in my sleep thinking
Annabel Lee had made it to Another New World”
And, this is absolutely true. Ritter’s own Annabel Lee, So Runs the World Away, reaches the a high pedestal of a jewelled release that, in my opinion, goes down as Ritter’s magnum opus at this stage of his career, and, is an early favorite for best album of the decade (to be compiled in December of 2019). It propels him to a symbolic “New World,” and Ritter should be proud and certainly smile at this. His, “Annabel Lee…made it to Another New World.”