The Animal Years
Josh Ritter is without question one of the most promising songwriters in the rock world today. His 2003 release, Hello Starling, was a beautiful collection of words and melodies that recalled an era when songwriting was a virtue, not a lost art. Yet, Ritter stumbles on his follow-up to Starling.
The Animal Years is a little too “next genius” for its own good. While he must be commended for his high aim, Ritter – for the first time in his career – appears to be too caught up in his own future songwriting glory. His lyrics have moved from the world of awe and wonder to one of cliche and tired allegories. And the structure of Ritter’s music has traded breathtaking lushness for bluntness and simplicity.
The LP’s first track, “Girl in the War,” is proof. Drawing upon the biblical story of Peter and Paul, the song never pulls itself out of its formula. And then there is “Wolves,” possibly the most boring song that Ritter has ever committed to tape.
Yet, The Animal Years is rescued by “Idaho.” On top of barely audible, muted notes on an acoustic guitar, Ritter dives deep and emerges with a shining pearl. The sound is eerie, gorgeous and powerful. But it’s not enough. As soon as “Idaho” finishes, it’s back to formula and disappointment.
Perhaps it’s the LP’s climatic track that illustrates Ritter’s falter the best. “Thin Blue Flame,” clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, is Ritter’s attempt to touch the sun. He never gets close. The idea is there. The lyrics plead for greatness. But the song simply sounds hokey and contrived. As does most of the LP.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Ah, here’s some beauty.
Looking like music’s odd couple on paper, Campbell and Lanegan have pulled off a coup.
Mixing folk, country and murder ballads, Campbell, the former cellist of Belle and Sebastian, and Lanegan – who once led the Screaming Trees, at times fronted Queens of the Stone Age and has released some of the best solo LPs in the last decade – have created a sound that is as relaxing as it discomforting.
While Campbell sings in a high “little girl” voice, Lanegan (as always) sounds like he’s just finished off a long night with a bottle of Jack and a new lady-friend. The contrast in pitches is reminiscent of the best work from June Carter and Johnny Cash. And the songs themselves mix hope and naivete with disillusionment and loss. The result: an enticing LP that sounds as good in the morning as it does in the evening.
Campbell plays the foil to Lanegan, constantly sounding like a teenage girl who has had her heart broken for the first time. Hitting the upper ranges, Campbell adds light to Lanegan’s world-weary view.
Ballad of the Broken Seas is a triumph. Here’s to the hope that this isn’t a one-night stand.