One important trait Ritter has shown in recent album is a huge sense of diversity. He is serious and moody one minute then light and breezy the next, deftly blending stories of life and death, love and hate, and weaving campfire tales with deeply personal issues. Ritter is constantly branching out while conscious of the fact that boundaries exist and he must stay within them to remain ‘himself’. This doesn’t always translate to really great music on So Runs The World Away - it is to all intents and purposes a safe place, but is much easier to accept than 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Moving swiftly through the one minute opener of Curtains, Change of Time kicks things off in style with a simple rolling acoustic guitar and vocal melody. This tale of having a dream about being washed up on a beach opening with the line: ‘I had a dream last night. I dreamt that I was swimming. And the stars up above, directionless and drifting’ builds beautifully for the first half before a magnificent choral mid-section framed with soaring guitar work. The opening line becomes: ‘I had a dream last night. And when I opened my eyes. Your shoulder blade, your spine were shorelines in the moonlight’ transforms into a love song.
The Curse is one of the songs that is too easy to get lost in. A five minute lament of lyrical dancing broken only by a short ‘brass’ instrumental at the three minute point. Other than that it is a voice and a piano waltz the likes of which Rufus Wainwright can only dream about. The final line: ‘Long ago on the ship she asked why pyramids. He said "Think of them as an immense invitation.". She asks "Are you cursed?". He says "I think that I'm cured.". Then he kissed her and hoped that she'd forget that question’ is one of the best Ritter has written.
Southern Pacifica continues the maritime theme, dangerously mid-tempo and only lifting for the duel vocal chorus. Another love song, this time for the mythical Roxy Anne. In contrast Rattling Locks could not be more different - a dark gloomy Mark Lanegan meets Nick Cave. ‘I had a dream that I was dying. But it wasn’t a nightmare, I was real peaceful as I fell. And if I was falling into heaven, heaven must be hotter than the bible tells. I woke up sorry I was living’ is utterly brilliant, complete with soft backing vocals and grinding guitars. Very different from the usual Ritter. Speaking of Nick Cave… Folk Bloodbath is another masterpiece and probably the best song on the album. Set to a tradition tune and Ritter moulding the song around ‘The angels laid her/him/them away’, this is a country murder ballad featuring Stackalee (Stagger Lee) and Louis Collins. It is a brilliantly observed piece of folk Americana. Lark shifts the mood again, bringing back the jolly guitars and Ritter in more playful upbeat guise. Complete with empty lyric chorus, this arrives like a Simon & Garfunkel-esque breath of fresh air. More fine lyrics: ‘I am assured, yes I am assured yes. I am assured that peace will come to me. A peace that can yes, surpass the speed yes, of my understanding and my need.’. Brilliant.
In a similar way Lantern is a positive flag-waving epic but suffers terribly from being stuck in the middle ground. Even an injection of drums and a spirited instrumental half way only just pulls it from the mire. This should work but smacks of that Springsteen song that was rejected for being too patriotic and radio-friendly. An enthusiastic final minute brings the song to a close. The Remnant (like Rattling Locks to South Pacifica) is a complete change yet again. Brilliantly written but questionably executed - the pounding bass and drums quickly become an annoyance - this is a second chalk and cheese, the words coming thick and fast and not always engaging. A definite lull. Likewise See How Man Was Made is sweet and different but lacks the substance we would expect from such a great song writer.
Back on track, Another New World threatens to return to Wainwright territory but this is fortunately back to what Josh Ritter does best, rescuing So Runs The World Away and forming a strong final trilogy. This is an achingly beautiful slice of storytelling, a tale brilliantly told and unfolding at an engaging pace. This is the maritime themed epicentre of the album, focusing on the quest for discovery and stretching oneself farther than possible. Easily the best lyrics on the album, if not the best Ritter has produced. Orbital is another upbeat waltz filled with vocal melody and military drums. Closer Long Shadows ensures that So Runs The World Away does not fall flat in the second heart. Borrowing heavily from Man Burning but a different approach, this shows Ritter’s lighter side.
At nearly an hour So Runs The World Away never feels over long or padded. It rolls along at its own pace, sometimes taking its time, often laboured but always interesting. A strong first half leads to a trio of ill-judged gambles before a strong finish. A frustrating listen in the moments of self-indulgence but given the wealth of material around these misgivings, Ritter pulls it off. And he brings together a great troupe of musicians together for So Runs The World Away including fellow musician and wife Dawn Landes on backing vocals, and long-time bass player Jack Hickman. Rittter’s song writing is second to none and always delivers. It would just be nice if from time to time he would exercise better judgement and listen to his head rather than his heart.