Josh Ritter

The Animal Years

BY Kerry DoolePublished May 1, 2006

To paraphrase Dave Eggers, this is a "work of staggering genius,” a phrase that just about sums up the stunning accomplishment that is The Animal Years. Given the inroads Ritter made with previous album, Hello Starling (his first non-independent record), it’d have been understandable if he’d curbed his artistic ambition in favour of a more orthodox, commercially accessible approach. His songwriting skill and pleasingly melodic voice could make him a candidate for David Gray or James Blunt level success, but, thankfully, he is made of sterner stuff. This album is almost shocking in its diversity. It encompasses a jaunty countrified romp ("Little Egypt”) and sparse, folk-rooted tunes ("Idaho,” "Girl in the War”), culminating in the tour-de-force, "Thin Blue Flame.” It’s a nine-minute-plus cinematic epic, written in rhyming couplets of oft Byron-esque beauty ("the fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem to float like the smoke from a lithium dream”). Simply superb.

Is the variety in your songs a deliberate choice? Ritter: When I first start, I never decide how a song will look. Sometimes they just come out naturally. Sometimes the lines come with their own metre, and sometimes I try one line in a bunch of different ways. You just have to follow where the song goes. Musically, I do consciously try to have that range. A record should be like a novel or a book of poetry. There should be moments that set the scene for the next one. Mark Twain was a master of that.

Your work seems to have rather a Canadian sensibility… Yes, I do feel a kinship. I almost feel secretly Canadian! I grew up so close [in Idaho], and so many of my favourite artists are from Canada. Like Ireland, I feel there is a real interconnected musical community there. Travelling across Canada with Sarah Harmer was just a blast, and on our recent tour we brought Corb Lund along.

How was working with producer Brian Deck? He said, "You don’t want to just make a record you can play live. Make a world and figure out how to do that later.” It felt like I was standing at the bow of a ship looking at the land on the horizon coming closer. It’s about trying to capture a mood or a glimpse of something a little strange. It was great to work with somebody else who doesn’t know or want to know what will happen.

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