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When Josh Ritter’s marriage broke up, the singer-songwriter did what came naturally: he wrote about it.
But in the depths of his pain, the emotions were too raw to produce anything redeemable. “When the feelings ran highest, it was also the hardest time to write anything down. It wasn’t so much like a kind of telling about anything,” he says.
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Instead, it was more akin to being “stuck at the bottom of the well, scratching on the edges. As time went by and those feelings started to change and things started to evolve in how I felt...It felt kind of tidal. The wave would wash in and then it would wash up a little higher and then it would lapse and that’s when I could actually settle because during those times when things are the worst, they’re just the worst.”
The result is “The Beast In Its Tracks,” Ritter’s seventh studio album, out today. The 13 songs serve as a travelog across his broken heart and redemption as he finds a new love. It’s a deeply human work, filled with a fearless vulnerability, illuminated by spare, yet muscular, production.
“There are times when it’s better, I guess, to be discreet, but I felt a very, very huge responsibility to myself and also to the people I was writing about,” he says. He thought, “I’m going to use what I have to tell this story this time, for once, just as it happened and not as it was imagined.”
The devastation comes creeping in quietly, rather than as a thundering cataclysm. On “Nightmares,” which boosts a “Graceland”-like lilting sway, Ritter sings of a defining moment: “I knew that you had been untrue, I didn’t know how, but I knew that who you spoke to in your dreams was never how you spoke to me now.”
As the fog lifts, he realizes, to his surprise, that he’s happy again “for the first time in a long time” on “A Certain Light.” But even that comes with a bittersweet tinge: “She only looks like you in a certain kind of light/When she holds her head just right,” he sings.
In 2006, Paste Magazine named Ritter to its list of 100 Best Living Songwriters and it’s easy to see why. His literate, descriptive lyrics and strong melodic sense recall John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon.
Ritter, who became a father for the first time late last year with his new partner, doesn’t know if his ex has heard the album, nor does he particularly care. “I didn’t want to tell it as a way of getting back at somebody,” he says. “That time is gone and better things have come, but I do feel that people go through this same thing, a lot of men and women. It’s a horrible thing to have happen and I guess more than me hoping that she heard it, I hope that there’s people who hear it that actually find it to be useful in some way... in a way to see that there’s other people that go through it too and can pull something out of it that’s not all hell.”
Ritter's tour starts March 13 at Dallas's Granada Theater. Check out tour dates here. Below is the video for "New Lover."