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The Historical Conquests Of...
To be fair to Ritter, he’s played the hand he’s been dealt with bravado and good grace.
Colin Carberry, 29 Aug 2007
It isn’t just connoisseurs of schoolyard rhyming slang who feel robbed by Josh Ritter’s continued failure to gain mass recognition. The Idaho lad has made lots of friends in Ireland over the course of this past decade and, judging by the doe-eyed indulgence lavished on him during his frequent visits, if the boy was ever to bag a trans-Atlantic No.1, Bertie would be under pressure to declare a national holiday.
Two years ago, with the release of The Animal Years, this prospect seemed far from outlandish. His third album was a meticulously crafted Statement record, whose ruthlessly honed melodies helped carry weighty lyrical allusions to American foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq, and the Bush administration. A full-tilt stab at becoming this generation’s Bob or Bruce may have appeared misguided (especially at a time when Bob and Bruce are making a fair go at doing it for themselves), but Ritter’s conviction was total, and he almost pulled it off.
Reviews were enthusiastic; the notoriously cynical UK press finally started to relent; Ritter even began making serious inroads on his home turf in the US. But then – on the very day, would you believe, that he played Letterman for the first time – his label folded, sacking its entire staff, and leaving the great Animal Years’ push stranded, just as its masterminds were about to launch the big offensive.
Ritter, you’d imagine, felt little inclination around that time to unleash his famous toothy grin.
Especially once he realised that, after toying with a Premiership budget, he now had to operate under strict Éircom League constraints.
With The Historical Conquests Of… we find him dealing head-on with his new reality, and while its low-key production is quite obviously born from economic imperatives rather than creative ones, to be fair to Ritter, he’s played the hand he’s been dealt with bravado and good grace. The sound is, in places, tinny – but as anyone with a copy of Nebraska or The Basement Tapes knows, this can sometimes lead to a broadening, rather than narrowing, of vision. The practical consequence, in this case, however, is pretty clear, and sees the record split, almost 50/50, between low-lit ballads and unpolished, energetic stompers. Of the former group, ‘The Temptations Of Adam’ is the most successful distillation of the new aesthetic – and its lovely, muted string and horn coda stakes a strong claim to be the album’s undisputed highlight. Likewise ‘Empty Heart’ almost manages to conjure up a melody as lovely as its motivating sentiment (“Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart”).