Josh Ritter’s “The Animal Years” was released in 2006 through Independent Records. He was also named one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters” by Paste magazine the same year, and this album holds many of the reasons why. Its 49 minutes in length, but with the way it makes you smile,wonder, and stop and think it feels like a friend you’ve known for years. I’ve seen Josh Ritter live 3 times and he never disappoints, he knows how to work the audience and seems to be up for the craic!
Starting with one of Ritter’s best songs, “Girl In The War”, you’re taken on a biblical love story. Soft guitar, banjo and arrangements make way for a drum beat that then holds greater emphasis, all while Ritter’s beautiful storytelling make you listen to every word. The storytelling and attention he gives to this album continues with “Wolves“, a more upbeat track. The piano takes centre stage in Monster Ballads, where Ritter makes reference to Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and the Mississippi Steamboat.
Though this is such a complete album, I have to pick “Idaho“ and “Thin Blue Flame“ out for special mention. “Idaho“ is practically a cappella, with soft guitar playing in the background. Close your eyes and listen and you’ll feel like you’re getting your own personal Josh Ritter show, or hearing him singing down the pub and everyone’s captivated by him. An Idaho native, he sings about his love and his state, singing about gravel roads and ceder trees. It’s a beautiful song because the almost dead silence of the backdrop is being filled with lyrics so well written it could be a poem!
Something else was on my mind
The only ghost I’m haunted by
I hear her howling down below
“Thin Blue Flame“ is over 9 minutes long and similar to “Idaho“ in some ways. Electric guitar in the background is kept low to put emphasis on the lyrics, also sounding like a bible passage. He speaks of God making the world in 7 days, then just walking away. He speaks of a full house making a home, and Royal City far below. “Streets named for heroes that could almost exist” and the Garden of Eden. He gets more serious with every chorus, first the drums and piano coming in, building, until a few verses in when they let loose. There’s a beautiful few seconds towards the end where he softens his tone and sings about his friends and angels that he loved and kissed, “heaven being so big there ain’t no need to look up”, and its this passage that’s probably my favourite minute in the entire album. He then descends into about 2 minutes of drum chaos that finishes up the story that is “Thin Blue Flame”. The album ends with “Here At The Right Time“, with Ritter seeing us off on the piano.
The songs on this album also incorporate more instruments that wouldn’t have featured so prominently on his previous 3 albums, so that growth in his music is evident in every song. And it works wonders because he showed he was so much more diverse. That’s not to say at all the the 3 previous albums don’t stand to themselves, because they do.
Highest marks because of his storytelling and beautiful, multi-instrumental tracks.