Josh Ritter Gets All Shakespearean

Folk troubadour Josh Ritter isn't all that concerned with baring his soul for all to see. He knows that sharing his personal thoughts on love isn't a path toward writing a song that's particularly memorable.

"I've never been thrilled with the idea of someone reading my diary," says the Idaho native. "I also don't think it would be that interesting for me. I would rather write about something fantastical; it just seems more fun to me."

Fantastical is an apt term when describing the closest thing to a straightforward love song on Ritter's sixth and latest studio album, the gorgeous and majestic So Runs the World Away. Contained in the piano-laden song "The Curse" is the tale of an archaeologist who finds a mummy—and then falls in love with it.

Such a whimsical scenario isn't at all out of place in this collection. For Ritter, it comes back to what catches his imagination and fancy—something that most simple, sweet love songs just don't do.

"It just seems more interesting," Ritter admits when discussing his apprehension at expressing love through song. "I do feel like there are great love songs, but life isn't as easy as it is in most love songs. Those songs capture that one, perfect moment, and I like the stuff that goes on beyond that, and what happens afterward."

Lyrically, in addition to mummies, the new album deals in dreams, exploration and thoughts that linger in the corners of his characters' consciousness—the kind of stuff that's dreamt but never spoken. These tales would be merely short, obtuse stories without the sonic spectacle that drapes each tune. And, true enough, arrangements are an obvious increased priority on So Runs the World Away. Ritter doesn't stop with grand lyrical imagery, hoping that the narratives will suffice. With this album, he and his producer, Sam Kassirer, decided it was high time to slow down their creative progression in order to give the music some added tension and dynamism.

"This is the first record that I've ever done with someone who has also produced a previous record of mine," Ritter says. "We really share the same language now, after living in such close proximity for so long, and we spent a lot of time making this record. We recorded this over an entire year because we felt like the songs just needed more time."

The extra time spent on the sonic elements—Ritter's previous album with Kassirer was recorded in three weeks—was indeed an investment that pays dividends on the finished product. Piano, electric guitar and even a stove grab higher positions on Ritter's musical totem pole than in years past. And those pieces truly take center stage in many cases, among them an instrumental track—a rarity for the marathon-running tunesmith.

Ritter was energized by the dramatic power that certain sounds possess. And, in turn, those sounds helped him create a record that has the feel of something more tethered and elevated than a simple recording of a few independent tracks. The tellingly entitled "Curtains," the aforementioned instrumental, is a sweeping, table-setting opening number and a hopeful call to attention for anyone listening.

"The songs here are so much bigger and more theatrical," Ritter says. And that's fitting enough: The title of the new disc, after all, is a Shakespeare reference.

"I wanted something akin to an overture—something to let you know that the record is starting and it's time to just sit back," he continues. "'So runs the world away' is a quote from Hamlet about watching a play, and I thought that would be a great way to really send that message home."

In the years since Ritter's self-titled debut, it's safe to say that few have sent any messages as artfully as Ritter has. Especially when dealing with the affairs of a mummy's heart.

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Kelly Dearmore