Josh Ritter’s latest album, So Runs the World Away, is a testament to the songwriter’s uncanny ability to tell a story. A compilation of what amounts to 13 auditory novels, the album goes far to reprieve Ritter from his brief foray into the world of major labels and commercial songwriting that culminated in the poorly-received release, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Here, the Idaho native is back to what truly allowed for his historical conquests in music (i.e., being named one of Paste Magazine’s 100 best living songwriters at just over 30 years old): writing music immediately satisfying to both sight and sound. With songs rich in their visual textures, and intensely compelling of one’s imagination, So Runs the World Away ironically finds Josh Ritter once again, returning home.
On “Another New World,” Ritter helms listeners through an intensely visual tale of a ship captain, his beloved ship, and their ill-fated search for a new world. And the line between storyteller and story fades to nil, as minds project the scene of a broken old man, drinking in an 18th century saloon, attempting desperately to “pretend that the search for another new world, was well-worth the burning of mine.” Again on “The Curse,” a love story between a centuries old mummy and his beautiful curator, Ritter’s gift of novelty turns what at first blush may seem a silly or contrived idea, into something wholly compelling and fully authentic. As the mummy breaks free of his glass enclosure with astonished photographers in tow, he joins his curator, now an aged woman, and brings the movie playing out in listeners’ imaginations to a satisfying close.
However, not all songs on So Runs the World Away were the created the same. On “Lantern” and “Change of Time,” Ritter forgoes the depth of story, in favor of more traditional lyrics that, though demand less of listeners, nonetheless provide sage insight. On the latter, percussive strikes emphasize Ritter’s contemplations on the passage of time as they crescendo in both their volume and their sense of inevitability. On the former, Ritter’s shimmering guitar riff mimics the glimmer of a fire that he hopes can burn brightly enough to push back the impending shadows taking shape in this, a cynical world. He cries “I need the light in my lantern, light in my lantern tonight,” and asserts, defiantly, prophetically, “If there’s a book of jubilations, we’ll have to write it for ourselves.” And though less provocative of imagination, these poetic snippets of thought succeed as axioms of life.
So Runs the World Away is an album with grain. That is to say, it has creases, turns, layers, burns, bright colors, textures, and in short, a very large, deep character which demands a great many things of its listeners. Through this album, Ritter, in effect, functions as a 21st century raconteur, who’s not interested in spoon feeding themes and messages to his onlookers, but rather paints a bright scene in which listeners are called upon to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. A byproduct of that process is the internalizing of his stories, and whether by intention or accident, that ultimately is the principal hallmark of all great storytellers. With songs that oscillate between concise communications of the heart to epic journeys of the mind, Josh Ritter’s self-admitted writer’s block has lifted. And, now, in the wake of flood gates flung wide, wide open, the water feels just right.