A long, long, long review of my current favorite album.

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, 2007.

This is a long review, because I love the album a bit more than I really want to admit. Given how much I admit to loving it (iTunes says 15 plays since Sunday on a weekend when I also heard the new tracks from The Weakerthans and took the time to watch the VMAs and all of the Fall Out Boy clips that weren’t aired that night) that’s a lot.

Josh Ritter can write lyrics. He’s been writing fantastic songs for years, and it’s great that people love him for that. But he’s coming out of a long tradition of popular music, a tradition that he respects and admires. Josh Ritter loves that music.

And he’s been doing his homework.

This is the album where Ritter makes it clear that he’s grown up, that he’s as much a musician as a lyricist, and that he’s ready to experiment with whatever catches his eye, whether it be classical harmony or The Clash. This is the one you’ll remember as a wonderful folk singer standing up and claiming that he’s more than that.

I’m not sure what the result is, but I can’t stop listening to it.

It’s impressive, the best album I’ve heard this year, and I can’t wait to see him live when he comes back to town in October.

And, because I can, you're going to get a track-by-track explanation of why.

To The Dogs Or Whoever

was it casey jones or casey at the bat
who died out of pride and got famous for that
killed by a swerve laid low by the curve
did you ever think they ever thought
they got what they deserved

My favorite image of the entire album is in this opening track, but it’s not the one I just quoted. Anybody who knows me will be able to figure it out. Just remember that I'm not a subtle person.

One of my favorite things about Josh Ritter is the way he plays with language. In this song, and the album as a whole, he’s playing with language and story and history. It’s no surprise that I’m smitten.

Mind's Eye

and when you come for me some night
you’d better bring a shovel be expecting the worst
cause i’ve got you in my mind’s eye

Listen to the piano in this. Really listen. And then listen to the lyrics, because this is the track where you’ll hear for the first time that this album is a challenge, a gunfight, a standoff between Josh Ritter and his critics. It’s an old-fashioned duel that he’s going to win.

Josh Ritter, gunslinger and guitar player.

Right Moves

all those lovers circling round their love
sling and arrows dogs and lions
rivers separating touch from touch
the comedy of distance the tragedy of separation

I am a sucker for a good tune. And for the sort of music that can’t be classified, that used instruments and mythology and echoes of beach music and rap and big band. I want this song tattooed on my skin, echoes of it in my head.

The Temptation Of Adam

if this was a cold war we could keep each other warm
i said on the first occasion that i met marie
we were crawling through the hedge that was the missile silo door
and i don’t think that she really thought that much of me

Some of you may remember my unreasoning adoration of the S60 version of “O Holy Night.” That reaction has got nothing on my love for the opening bars of this song and the mix of—if I’m hearing it correctly—trumpet, bassoon, and acoustic guitar. And, because he’s still Josh Ritter, we also get to think about war and love songs and personal history and language games and the ways that they’re the same.

Open Doors

i’m saving nickels and i’m saving dimes
i’m gonna kiss you where the sun don’t shine
and all those shadows gonna kiss them too
just so long as they come in with you

I’m not sure if I enjoy this because it sounds like Josh Ritter, only with a stronger rhythm, or because I would dearly, dearly love to hear it covered by Fall Out Boy. Possibly both. Probably both.


there’s some bells in the belfry
hey what the hell if it helps me
i put a whip to the kick drum
but the music’s never loud enough

This starts with an unabashed reference to one of my favorite songs ever, and from there keeps a solid beat and a fantastic hook that I absolutely adore. It’s darker than a lot of his previous stuff, a tango instead of a ballad. I firmly believe that everyone should love this song as much as I do.

Edge Of The World

The change in pacing and sound between this and “Rumors” is a little jarring at first, but it grew on me. It’s like the Intermission on A Fever You Can't Sweat Out--a chance to come down from the harder tracks and get ready for the slower, smoother track that leads off the back half of the album. It’s pretty, and I can see why it’s necessary given the rest of the (fantastic, but tougher) tracks around it.

Wait For Love

This is the closest song on the album to the sound of The Animal Years, with that same minimal instrumentation. It showcases the way that Ritter is stretching his range, though, with a few harmonies and a melody that I’m not sure he’d have attempted before. Still really good, but not quite single material the way almost everything else here is. I’m a little disappointed with the lyrics, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever been with one of his songs before.

Ultimately, I’d prefer that this be switched out with one of the bonus tracks. It’s the weak point on the album, and that’s a shame because from anyone else it would be a lovely, if quiet, song.

Real Long Distance

telephone ringin’ mama
please don’t you leave it alone
don’t leave no breaks in the line
it’s the only thing that’s tied to home

The solid beats are back with a vengeance, and the sort of instrumentation that makes it clear (as if we didn’t already know) that Ritter means business with the music this time. The bridge, which is half jazz riff and half guitar rock, is something I didn’t expect and have grown to love despite my usual dislike of cacophony. (This dislike is a bit excessive, I’ll admit. There was an experimental overture I had to learn once, it was painful to play, I don’t want to talk about it.)

Next To The Last Romantic

there’s always whiskey and women
and women and whiskey around
and he can’t tell which is worse
to be dying of thirst or to drown

Josh Ritter can also do old-fashioned honky tonk. He just wants us all to know that. And while he’s at it, he can combine operatic background vocals with country rock and make you enjoy it. Everyone who said he was the next Dylan? Can, apparently, just fuck off.


Another break, this time with enough vocals that it’s obvious Ritter is still writing his usual thoughtful lyrics and playing with expectations; he hasn’t lost anything, he’s just gained a love of genre mixing. And, as with “Edge of the World,” it’s a cue that it’s time to slow down for a moment.

Still Beating

seems like everybody up and left
and they’re not coming back
the shadow that you’re standing on’s still here
sometimes that’s all that you can ask

I am a sucker for mournful brass interludes in weird places. I always have been and, after spending half my life playing horn, I probably always will be. I love this song for so much more than the lyrics (which manage to combine horror and hope in a way that I love) and it’s possibly my favorite track, if I had to choose one.

Or then again, maybe not. Because at the end of it comes “Empty Hearts.”

Empty Hearts

oh save all of your light
for those who can’t sleep at night
and they can’t even sing to their shadows

It’s the flow of all this that really gets me. Without being a gimmick, there’s a clear relationship between the pieces, the individual tracks. Both within the entire album and between individual tracks the music and the lyrics mesh well. Each track is an experiment, and as an album they add up to something that simply doesn’t fit the categories we use for music.

There are echoes of the first track in this, and of several others. And while I enjoy “Wait for Love (You Know You Will),” I’d have been just as happy for the album to end on this note.

Wait For Love (You Know You Will)

i got someone on my mind
and she don’t make me wait
the way you do

I can’t decide if this is really meant to end the album, or to serve as a bridge to the bonus tracks. I suspect it’s the latter, because “Empty Hearts” is stronger lyrically. And the things that I didn’t necessarily like about it the first time still apply.

So that’s the album proper. Now let’s talk about the bonus tracks.

Bonus Tracks:


you must be living on wildfires
that’s why your eyes are smoke and ash

A quiet, driving beat overlaid with a slow, painful lyric that is, quite honestly, heartstopping at times. It’s the sort of thing that I can’t even explain, because it has to be heard to be understood.

It’s also got echoes of the history and metaphors that underpin “The Temptation of Adam,” which serve as a beautiful link to the main album.

Spot In My Heart

This is…I feel like I ought to get this, to know why it’s here. I don’t. I’ll probably kick myself when I figure it out.

Naked As A Window

you know you’re asking too much
to be held and not touched
but somehow that’s just what you do

Old-school Josh Ritter, and much, much too short, although it’s lovely. The best thing about it is that it isn’t polished, and sounds like the sort of thing that makes his concerts a joy to hear. I'd like to see this as the closing track of the album, I think.

Labelship Down

we just pressed record
started singing like we’d sung before
we got enough so who needs more
of what we never really had

Josh Ritter has a sense of humor. QED.

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