Ritter’s heaviest songs capture the zeitgeist

What do killer dogs, possessed cars, a zombie virus spread by cellphones, and Josh Ritter have in common? Stephen King has written about all of them. Granted, he hasn’t worked Ritter into one of his novels. But in his column in Entertainment Weekly, the author of Cujo, Christine, and Cell called The Animal Years, the Idaho-raised singer’s latest, “the best album of the year in a walk”.

King’s not the only fan—The Animal Years placed on a number of year-end best-of lists, with critics calling it the 29-year-old’s breakthrough disc.

One reason for all the praise is the album’s ambition. By stepping back from the introspection of his earlier records, including 2003’s Hello Starling, Ritter has come up with some songs, if not a whole disc, that seem to capture his beleaguered nation’s zeitgeist. The brooding, nine-minute “Thin Blue Flame”, for example, embeds apocalyptic imagery in a simple piano-and-guitar arrangement that builds to a fiery climax.

It’s a heavy song, and it gets even heavier when Ritter, who sometimes travels with a band, performs it solo, as he is doing on his current tour. “It takes me on a whole different trip when I’m singing it alone,” he says, reached at an Albany, New York, tour stop. “Without sounding too hippie-ish, doing that song every night is an emotional experience, especially at a time like this.”

Yet Ritter shies away from drawing any pat conclusions in his lyrics.

“I don’t openly criticize anybody on it [the album],” says the artist, whose current reading material includes Wash ­ington Post correspondent Thomas E. Rick’s Fiasco, a book critical of the Iraq conflict. “I don’t believe those types of songs are effective. We have enough singer-songwriters yelling at people. It’s dumb—it just hardens those kinds of lines.”

Other tracks on The Animal Years hew more closely to the sweet-natured, husky Midwestern folk of Ritter’s past efforts. Producer Brian Deck, who has shown he knows a thing or two about atmosphere in his work with Califone and Modest Mouse, finds the ideal balance of restraint and drama in tunes like the loping, half-drunk “Wolves”.

Ritter toured heavily in support of Hello Starling, and all that travelling unravelled him a bit, as reflected in the song named after his home state.

“This last couple of years, it really hit me that my government isn’t going to look out for me,” says Ritter. “And, if I wanted to make a difference in the world, I had to do it on a small level. I was getting asked to move places or told I should move places, and I just really wanted to move back to Idaho. I love it there, and it’s a place where I can make a difference and be part of a community.”

Now he’s living just 20 minutes away from his parents, both of whom are neuroscientists—a career path Ritter considered, briefly. The Animal Years clearly shows he made the right choice.

Josh Ritter plays the Vancouver East Cultural Centre next Thursday (February 22).