Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Finders, Seekers, Losers and Keepers

I doubt very much whether there remains any question as to whether or not I rate Josh Ritter. For those who haven't been paying attention, though, I think he's easily one of the best lyricists of the 21st Century, and a pretty damn good musician besides. Off the top of my head I can think of two songs that are guaranteed to make me grin like an idiot when I'm singing them, and he wrote both of them.

Having seen him live in Leeds at the tail end of 2009, I've been waiting - with considerable impatience - for his sixth album So Runs The World Away. The few glimpses we received back in December were pretty intriguing, none more so than "The Curse" (see the first link above), the tremendously depressing but delicately beautiful story of a anthropologist/archaeologist who falls in love with an immortal Egyptian mummy (an awesome enough idea even before one considers the metaphor it is serving, but we'll get to that), which seemed to confirm Ritter's continued transformation from singer-songwriter to singer-songwriter-storyteller (see "The Last Temptation Of Adam" and "Best For The Best" for earlier signs).

Let's get the entirely unsurprising news out of the way first: it's very, very good. Not perfect. "Rattling Locks" needed a serious rethink, I reckon, and "The Remnant" is fairly nondescript too (it doesn't help that I cannot for the life of me work out what it's about). The vast majority of it is excellent, though.

Here's the more interesting part, though, ...World Away reads like a concept album.

I've always been torn on the idea of concept albums. On the one hand, I clearly love myself some stories. I've always thought the ability to tell a good story is a tremendously impressive skill, and the ability to do that through song is more amazing still (I can't do it at all, which is why I write fiction in prose instead of forming a band - my total lack of musical talent notwithstanding). I can definitely see the attraction in spinning that out into an entire album. On the other hand, you're kind of tying your hands, to some extent. If the central story/theme/conceit doesn't stand up, you may well end up wishing you'd allowed yourself a bit more freedom.

Ritter's solution to the conundrum is apparently to tie the album together with a theme so expansive and familiar that it's easy not to notice it at all. In fact, one could even believe the album is a bit of a lyrical mess, if you're not paying attention. Actually, might be me being a little unfair. Five months of repeatedly listening to "The Curse" has given me plenty of time to consider its central concept, and the overall message of the album ties into it very well. I also think that it's an interesting enough concept to sustain a fairly lengthy post on the subject. I warn you now, if listening to a man who can play all of six chords on a guitar and who sings like two wounder pigs drowning an inebriated badger attempt to analyse an album without any reference to the music itself doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I'd look away now. This is the sort of post for which "the fold" was invented, but since I don't know how to do that (or even if I can), I guess we're kind of stuck.


Given Ritter's own comments on his difficulty making ...World Away, it would be trivial, even banal, to point out that the album clearly concerns itself with searching. The most immediate reading can confirm this from "Change Of Time", "Southern Pacifica" and "Another New World" alone. What is important here, though, is not that there is a search on. That much is obvious. What should interest us is what the search is for, and more importantly, why people keep searching for the things we already have. The answer to the first question would seem to be love, or at least peace, but if that's true, why do so many people find both, and keep looking?

The old cliche that we always find something in the last place we look is frequently accompanied by the equally cliched gripe that of course we do. It's inevitable. Once we find it, we stop looking. The trouble is, that very frequently isn't true. I mean, sure, if you were hunting for your car-keys or an escaped tortoise, that makes sense. But what if what you were looking for isn't physical, and perhaps not even recognisable. How does one find peace? Or, to put it another way, how do you make sure the last place you look isn't death?

That still doesn't get us all the way there, though, not least because the dangers of missing it when you find it are no greater than the risks of hoping what you've found so far counts as peace and slowly allowing yourself to bleed out everything that makes you you. In addition, if peace is the goal - and it most certainly is as far as ...World Away is concerned - then there's an immediate follow-up question: what are you prepared to do to obtain and keep it? What can you bear give up yourself, and what are you willing to take from others? Almost the entirety of the first ten songs on the album, not counting brief instrumental opener "Curtains", see the narrator struggling with that question ("Folk Bloodbath" and "The Remnant" being the two possible exceptions, though as noted, that second song could be about anything).

"Change Of Time" and "The Curse" set the scene and define the riddle. As the singer dreams in the former song, he notes the swirling, disordered stars above, entirely free and entirely alone, separated by a million years of nothing. All around the songs of the sirens and the flashes accompanying the thunder try to distract him from his path through the water, telling him to head off in a new direction. Below him, though, he can see the dead bodies of others who were tempted, who swam themselves to their deaths looking for something they'd never find.

Simple enough, right? Find land quickly, or not at all? Well, not really. For every desperate dreamer who tried to navigate by the shifting stars, there's the rusted hull of some ocean-born leviathan that spent too long on the same course, that simply wouldn't or couldn't change heading, and simply corroded out on the sea waiting to reach the land they had settled on so long ago, and was never really there.

Those that move too fast never want to stop moving. Those that move too slow never get where they wanted to be. And the difference between the two? "It's only a change of time, love."

What of our hero? Is he taking things at the right speed? Is he swimming in the right direction? He thinks so. He may have realised that the woman who sleeps naked beside him is further than he thought, that he hadn't found his harbour after all, that he can't even tell how much further he has to go. But he keeps swimming. Because he doesn't mind the extra distance. Because it's only a change of time.

Not everyone ends up so optimistic, of course. The immortal, paralysed pharaoh lying inside the dead earth is searching, too, not that he has any choice but to let what he's searching for come to him. His crisis, though, is very different. As the song begins he has found what he wanted, new life in the company of the woman he loves, but the only way to maintain it is to doom her by inches. To take her life, moment by moment, and spend it himself. His choice to forever distract her from her question: "Are you cursed?" shows he is entirely aware of the consequences of his choice. Not happy about it, perhaps, but he knows what's coming. And he kills her anyway, because he doesn't want the search to start again.

This is the second concept at the heart of the album. What if there's only so much energy to go around? What if you've generating peace by using the one you love as a battery? And what if you knew what was happening? If you realised that the only way to force the blood back through the "dried fig of [your] heart" was to take it from someone else? How much would you be willing to take, rather than move on and look elsewhere?

Is that really what people could mistake for love? A search for firewood? Or from the other side, a commitment to act as a woodshed? Perhaps. Perhaps that is what happened to the lonely, haunted train rider of "Southern Pacifica" [1]. Did Roxy Anne simply take too much from him? He'd like us to think not, that he's moving on.

Remember me to Roxy Anne
You know she's still lovely
Tell her I was on the move
Last time you saw me

It's a lie, of course. The train is taking him from her, but he isn't moving at all. Or if he is, it's only from the most important part of himself.
Tell her I was barely there
Last time you saw me
Like everyone else in these first ten songs, he's searching for something. He just doesn't know what it is, or pretends he doesn't, right up to the moment he decides to face the thing hunting him across the white plains. He decides to meet his fate, not with defiant grace, but with exhausted resignation. He's simply too tired. The shed is empty, now. He has no essence left, either because Roxy Anne took it, or because he offered it to her and didn't get what he was looking for back in return.

Still, even he's better off than the miserable fool in "Rattling Locks", a broken-hearted shell of a man who haunts the locked door of his lover's heart, hoping it will open again. There are hundred ways the search can go badly, of course, but this is one of the two worst-case scenarios: to have succeeded entirely, only to have it taken from you. The singer knows he's back to square one, but he can't accept it, so he's left shivering in the rain, by the only door he knows. Waiting for it to open again. Waiting for more light, more heat. More energy. Because what if he never gets this close again?

By this point, one could be forgiven for collapsing in despair. Where, one might ask, is the Ritter of a few years ago? The man who sang "I'm not sure if I'm singing for the love of it or for the love of you" with a grin so wide you worried he might swallow the audience whole?

"Lark" offers some respite, for a little while at least. The most optimistic song since "Change Of Time" (interesting that so far it's those narrators who haven't got where they're going that are the happiest), "Lark" charts the course of a man content to let the search continue, and draw his comfort from the world around him in the meantime.

The golden ratio the shell
The stairs ascending around themselves
The trees rustle as if to kneel and listen
To the heartbeat of a lark or the lark in my heartbeat

...I am assured peace will come to me

It's love as photosynthesis, essentially. Nice trick when you can pull it off. And Ritter has before, of course, on The Animal Years' "Thin Blue Flame", with possibly one of the best lyrical and musical moments of his career.
I heard my friends laughing out across the fields
The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel
The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay
Cicadas electric in the heat of the day
A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land
And the lake was a diamond in the valley's hand
The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts
They were coming together they were pulling apart
And angels everywhere were in their midst
In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed
I wondered what it was I'd been looking for up above
Heaven is so big there ain't no need to look up
So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air
Only a full house gonna have a prayer
Of course, "Thin Blue Flame" only reaches this point at its conclusion, following a violent reading of the vicious horrors of an unravelling world. If the simple pleasures of "Lark" seem lacking in comparison, it's only because that song is essentially a prologue to"Lantern", a furious attack against life that makes "Thin Blue Flame" sound like a love song to the Bush administration.

Where the thistles eat the thorns
And the roses have no chance
And it ain't no wonder that the babies
Come out crying in advance

...And the sky's so cold and clear
The stars might stick you where you stand
And you're only glad it's dark because
You might see the master's hand

This time there's no peace to be found out in the world. If "Thin Blue Flame" suggested nature and the things we've gone through before might protect us from the idiocies of man, "Lantern" tells us that those same depredations stem from nature itself, and the only thing we've really achieved is to survive for long enough to despise the world for what it's done to us. And whilst Ritter's earlier song suggested that religion might be too remote when you're despairing and unnecessary when you're content, "Lantern" goes one step further still.

Tell me what's the point of light
That you have to strike a match to find?

Perhaps that's the wrong question. Indeed, what is love, but someone else's light you find using your own? At least we begin to see solutions amongst the searching and the pain, however; a commitment to use his partner's light in his own lantern in order to protect her, and himself, rather than just to continue the search elsewhere. His desperate need to shine the lantern against everything and everyone still implies the energy reserves will be burned away until there's nothing left, but at least this time we can hope they can burn brightly together. They won't make it, perhaps, but they won't make it together.

The last two songs of these first ten restate the twin problems set up at the beginning. "See How Man Was Made" is probably Ritter's most simple song ever, a pleading outpouring of misery and loneliness, begging whomever will listen for the search to be over. For someone to just be there. I mentioned earlier the two worst places these searches can find themselves: this is the other, lost out in Ritter's hulk-strewn ocean for so long, you have no energy left with which to move your exhausted limbs and swim. "Please/ Man ain't supposed to live alone".

If the earlier songs explain the difficulty in conducting the search, and knowing when it's concluded, this is a sharp reminder as to why we never really have any choice but to drag ourselves back out into the world again. We have to, because otherwise the ocean is waiting to claim us.

"Another New World" returns to the theme of stealing the energy of those we love. This time, an explorer grows weary of investigating America, and resolves to find a new land amongst the pack-ice of the Arctic Circle. And so he takes his ship, the Annabelle Lee, the true love of his life, north into the unknown. Soon enough, inevitably enough, he becomes trapped, his crew gone and his supplies dwindling, in a "vast glassy desert" which he refuses to escape without his beloved vessel.

Ultimately he has no choice but to begin dismembering his ship, tearing her apart plank by plank as he burns her to keep himself alive. Each night he tells her of what they will discover when he is rescued, and she is repaired, but sooner or later he realises it is never going to be. She has simply lost too much. Whatever ship might one day be raised from her skeleton, it will not be the Annabelle Lee. She isn't a ship anymore, she's the woodshed. The explorer killed her, because he couldn't be happy with what he had. Because he was convinced he needed to search again. Eventually help arrives, far too late:

I won't call it rescue what brought me here back to
The Old World to drink and decline
And pretend that the search for Another New World
Was well worth the burning of mine.

It's a powerful metaphor, that feeds into the whole album, and brings to an end Ritter's constant posing of difficult questions. Much like Frank Darabont's The Mist (and perhaps the Stephen King novel on which it was based) concerned itself on the nature of hope whilst making it abundantly clear that there existed no correct choice or easy answer, Ritter spends his time investigating multiple approaches to the finding of love and peace, and documents the flaws in all of them. Happily, the last two songs offer some answers. Not cast-iron ones, of course, because those don't exist, but even so, some comfort for the battered, bleeding victims of the rest of the album, and amongst its listeners.

I've talked a lot about energy above. This is entirely deliberate, not just because of the imagery of these songs (with all their talk of light and motion and burning), but because of the fundamental laws of the universe. Entropy grabs pretty much everything in the end. Energy cannot be destroyed, of course, but useful energy is gradually trickling away all the time. If you're not very, very careful, all you end up with at the end of a love affair is a kind of low-grade heat that too many people will try to tell you is still something worth bathing in, because they won't risk heading out into the cold again to find some other flame.

So what is to be done? Well, I've no idea. I doubt anyone else does, including Ritter. He offers up a pretty compelling suggestion, though: orbital motion. Two bodies giving each other the energy to spin around each other. Not the burning of a body, or the stealing of a soul, but the proscribing of a path, a path which is informed and consented to by your partner, and which causes them to create their own path for you too, onwards and onwards, dancing forever, moving forever, constantly speeding past the Lagrange point of each other's love.

All of which is convincing - and thrillingly beautiful - enough, but then Ritter gives us more as the song heads to its conclusion. He admits without reservation that there is nothing certain in the arrangement, that lovers orbit each other like "The guess around the second guess", but then he brings in astrophysics to drive the point home:
The wheel time the wheel fate
The light that bends itself through space
The light that with it carries time
Which also bends in the same line
Relative to point of view
So when I catch a glimpse of you
Every time you come around
The room lights up
And time slows too.
I've always said that the best songs, the truly top tier songs, the songs you learn by heart and sing to yourself for the rest of your life, will actually change the way you think and feel, from the bedrock up. They'll throw you into the thrall of love, if you're not careful. This is one of those.

The album ends gently with "Long Shadows", but within the simple tune is a great deal, not least Ritter's own gratitude that the darkness that apparently afflicted his life between his last record and this one has been dealt with, or at least set aside for now. The fury of "Lanterns" is gone, the railing against the world replaced with a simple refrain of infinite patience and fondness.
But if a long shadow
Falls across your heart
I'll be right there with you
I'm not afraid of the dark.
If "Orbital" was Ritter's attempt to address the question of balance, this is one last stab at figuring out when you've come to the end of your search. Just find someone who keeps the shadows away, and make damn sure you keep the shadows away from them. Whether this is personal experience talking, I'm not entirely sure, but it seems an entirely good enough conclusion to me.

[1] As a slight aside, it's worth noting that Ritter mentions trains often, as a metaphor for Hell.

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