Josh Ritter's The Animal Years was released last year to critical acclaim, and rightfully so. The songs are a gorgeous cross-section of styles and themes: from the poignant "Girl in the War," to the run-away train of a song "Lillian, Egypt," to the sweet and satisfying "Good Man." Just a short year later, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is a vibrant continuation of his increasingly exceptional body of work.
Even from the opening song, "To The Dogs or Whoever," Ritter effortlessly works a thematic dichotomy involving love and... everything else. It's a kaleidoscope of a song– a loose and playful ode to a lover, juxtaposed with passing philosophical mentions of generals and Jesus, water and war– all set to a foot-stomping beat, chugging along on its own accord. As if to remind the listener how seriously they should take this song however, he belts out, "lemonade on your breath, sun in your hair–did I mention how I love you in your underwear?"
The album quickly takes a dark turn into "Mind's Eye," a surprisingly aggressive track with tight, sharp vocals riddled with just the right amount of spite: "my day might be comin', yours is comin' first..." It's followed by "Right Moves," a groovy, upbeat love song with playful intentions and a danceable beat. Other highlights include the gutsy and in-all-ways-rocking "Rumors" and "Wait For Love (You Know You Will)"– a beautifully sloppy song with colorful, twangy vocals and production so warm it could have been recorded on a front porch in Austin. The album keeps a brisk pace with enough quiet moments to catch your breath (with the delicate song about love and nuclear war, "The Temptation of Adam" and the sentimental "Still Beating.") Throughout the album, piano and horns add an appealing texture to a solid acoustic base. The production varies appropriately from track to track, but remains cohesive– breathing just enough heat into each song to create a perfect album for late summer. Thunderous and lusty, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter blithely rides the line between out-right levity and late-night rumination.
Josh Ritter is the cream of the crop of this generation–his music is smart and dense and beautiful–riddled with history, metaphor, mystery, winks of the eye and nods of the head. He's frequently gets the flattering comparisons to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash–but Ritter is very much his own man, with a body of work worthy of the aspirations of his peers. Richly complex, his songs are swaddled in tradition without ignoring the immediacy of now. In Josh Ritter, American songwriting has found its balance and its hero–with his head in the present and his heart in the past.