Josh Ritter spends a couple minutes and a few hundred words trying to describe how his new album, Sermon On the Rocks, differs from its predecessor, 2013's The Beast In Its Tracks, and how the man who made the latter is not quite the same man who made the former.
As is Ritter's style, his explanation is funny and poignant, with the kind of effortless twists and turns you'd expect from a guy who published a novel in 2011 (one recommended by Stephen King and Oprah Winfrey, no less). And then he pauses. There's a simpler, more vivid way to say this.
"I don't feel like a wolf anymore," Ritter says in a phone interview from a hotel in Detroit. "I feel like I can make my own choices."
The Beast In Its Tracks was the sixth full-length album from the 39-year-old Ritter, long considered among the best songwriters of his generation. It was also, unmistakably, a "divorce record," a slate of songs that explored the emotional intricacies of Ritter's split from fellow musician Dawn Landes. Those explorations offered a peek at a different side of the famously friendly Idaho native, "placing venom and malice alongside cheery faith and fresh optimism," according to a review in American Songwriter.
Beast is a venomous record for Ritter, but rest assured, it's not exactly slanderous. "I know I've been in love before/Oh I feel it so much more than the last time," he sings in "A Certain Light," the album's third song. "And she only looks like you in a certain kind of light, when she holds her head just right."
Sonically, Sermon On the Rocks, which was released in October via Pytheas Records, recalls Ritter's 2007 masterpiece The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which found its namesake harnessing the power of a full band after a handful of sparse folk albums. Sermon is similarly stocked with rollicking folk-rock, roots-pop and generous helpings of gospel, soul and R&B. Opening track "Birds of the Meadow" even finds Ritter offering up a slinky slab of sinister heartland funk.
Ritter recorded the album in two weeks in the cradle of American music, New Orleans. He chose the location in hopes of soaking up more of the town's "homemade freakiness" than is possible during a 12-hour stop in the middle of a tour.
"Every night and every morning, we would walk through the Garden District to get to the studio, past all those big houses and all these great little coffee places," he says. "It totally infused the record with good times. New Orleans has always had this special place in my heart, and to make it happen there, I felt, was one of the big victories of the record."
Ritter and his team put in long hours over those two weeks, leaving "no stone unturned to try to make (these songs) really swing hard," he says. It worked. Sermon On the Rocks crackles with energy, from the biblical bounce of "Young Moses" to the timeless piano-driven pop-rock of "Where the Night Goes" to "Getting Ready to Get Down," a talking-blues tune so packed with winking and flirting, Ritter can barely keep up with its pace. Even slower songs like the cavernous "Henrietta, Indiana" simmer with intensity as Ritter spins stories of sin and deliverance.
Recording in New Orleans may have influenced Sermon On the Rocks, but the biggest change in Ritter's life, and his retreat from wolf-hood, has been something more common: He fell in love and became a father for the first time. His daughter, age three, has affected Ritter's songwriting, in more practical ways than creative ones.
"There wasn't that, 'Oh, she has enriched my work. My love for her infuses my verse.' Or whatever," he says with a laugh. "I just feel like the actual act of adapting to life with an infant is that your hands are full. All the time. So for me, I found that a lot of times, I couldn't write on paper or on the computer. I just had to hold verses in my head. While I was doing something else, I'd drift off and work that way."
The result? Song ideas became more refined, but also "weirder" by the time Ritter finally got a chance to write them down at the end of the day. That sounds contradictory, but it makes more sense when he explains it: "The editing process wasn't there," Ritter says. "I wasn't editing. I was just making up stuff to amuse myself. You can get pretty bored living off in the woods huddled around a wood stove."
Boredom. That's another reason Sermon feels like a full swing of the pendulum from Beast. No matter his personal circumstances, Ritter keeps an eye out for boredom, and if he feels it coming on, he moves in the other direction.
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"Every time you do a new record, you work in reaction to the last thing," he says. "For me, I get bored with stuff. And if I feel like I'm getting bored, then I also get afraid. Because if I'm getting bored with it then other people are, too, and that pushes me to find new ways to express myself."
Again, Ritter finds a simple and vivid way to make the point.
"I think a record is a lot like a party. You don't want to stay too long. And if you're gonna leave, leave 'em laughing," he says. "My fear is being the most boring guy in the room."