After Josh Ritter released 2006’s The Animal Years, we should have heard the sound of cash registers opening instead of critical praise. We should have heard “Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame” coming out of the rolled-down windows of passing cars. Sure, we heard him on the television, in the season finale of House and a handful of late night talk shows. But, that didn’t translate to the level of popularity that Ritter should have received. What it did prove, if only to a minority of the record-buying population is that Josh Ritter is a first-rate songwriter. Ritter possesses the ability to write dense lyrics full of historical and cultural references that are actually clear and understandable without delving into Wikipedia to understand what’s happening in the song. But, it’s not Ritter’s lyrics that should have propelled him into the spotlight; it should have been the gloss of The Animal Years. The songs were clean; though, they weren’t polished to the point where you couldn’t feel an actual human being singing to you. They should have reached a larger base. But they didn’t, and a year later, Ritter releases The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, a record that will not bring him the popularity he deserves; and not for a lack of quality either. Historical Conquests will not bring fame and fortune to Ritter because he’s having too much fun.
Where The Animal Years was a well-groomed gentleman with a crisp white shirt and snug tie, Historical Conquests is that same gentleman not trying to impress anybody anymore, rolling his sleeves up and loosening his tie so it just dangles on his chest. This is not to say that Ritter and his band play sloppy—the songs are still melodic and well sketched. But, Ritter lets himself wander outside the lines, letting a few cymbal crashes come in late, and a few guitar chords ring out a half-second extra.
Though Ritter’s a bit looser on the record, he hasn’t neglected his ability to write an emotional song. “Empty Hearts,” the closest he’s come to sounding like Bruce Springsteen, is extremely affecting. Just try to listen to the gang-vocal refrain of “Don’t let me enter this year with an empty heart” at the end of the song and not feel both melancholy and triumphant. It’s impossible. And it’s Ritter’s ability to evoke multiple emotions that makes “The Temptation of Adam” similarly moving. The juxtaposition of the soldier’s romance and the situation in which they find love makes lyrics like “And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead / And carve our name in hearts into the warhead” both touchingly sweet and incredibly terrifying.
Though it is not as polished as his previous effort, Historical Conquests is another excellent record by Josh Ritter. And while it will not bring him hoards of screaming fans, or high profile ‘media appearances,’ his skill as a songwriter cannot be denied. Hopefully, somebody is noticing.