In the upper echelon of today’s singer/songwriters, there’s a handful who could be counted among the literary elite — those whose lyrics are poetry that paints unique, evocative pictures — and Josh Ritter has long been considered near the top of that heap. His latest album is, among many other things, an absolute affirmation of this.
Gathering is Ritter’s ninth full-length studio album, coming off the heels of 2015’s Sermon on the Rocks. The songs were largely written in the aftermath of his highly fruitful collaboration with Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir (which resulted in Blue Mountain, Weir’s acclaimed 2016 album and his first solo studio album since 1978). The resulting creative explosion, according to Ritter, was a way to cut himself off from the expectations of others. “I began with an exciting sense of dissatisfaction,” Ritter explains in the album’s press release. “What emerged, as I began to find my voice, was a record full of storms.”
The storm-like energy is palpable on Gathering, and the creative spring from where he draws has helped create his finest album since 2010’s So Runs the World Away. Backed by his dependable and ever-present Royal City Band — Zachariah Hickman (bass, acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer), Sam Kassirer (piano, organ, synthesizers, percussion), Josh Kaufman (guitar, synthesizer) and Ray Rizzo (drums, percussion) — Ritter seems positively giddy at unleashing his new compositions with a dynamic energy that flows through both the up-tempo numbers as well as the tender ballads.
Kicking off Gathering is the brief, hymn-like “Shaker Love Song (Leah)”, which opens the album in a stately manner and invites comparisons to the aloof, mysterious arrangements of Fleet Foxes. But it’s soon followed by the first single, “Showboat”, which kicks down the doors with a sunnier, more traditional execution. “Every time it rains it pours / I pray it rains just a little more on me,” Ritter belts out at the song’s beginning before the full band falls into place. The upbeat instrumentation masks the anguish in the lyrics, where Ritter struggles to remain brave and stoic in the face of a breakup. “I’m just a showboat,” he sings. “Won’t catch me crying, no / Won’t catch me showing any hurt.”
Typically, Ritter peppers his folky arrangements with rip-roaring, boom-chicka-boom rave-ups like the infectious “Friendamine”, an upbeat barn-burner that’s sure to bring down the house when Ritter and the Royal City Band hit the road later this year. That same Johnny Cash-like gallop continues, in a more subdued fashion, on “Feels Like Lightning”, which evokes an unvarnished “riding the rails” vibe. “Out across the fields are the thunderheads gathering / Clouds all turned to the color of a cavern,” Ritter sings, pairing his nature-rich, rustic imagery with the album’s underlying “storm” themes.
Comparisons to the aforementioned So Runs the World Away are hard to avoid, not just in the quality of the writing and performing, but in the use of brief, scene-setting tracks like “Shaker Love Song” and the gorgeous instrumental “Interlude”. There’s also a folk-noir feel that pervades Gathering, never more apparent than in the epic “Dreams”. Ritter has been accurately compared to Bob Dylan in both his organic musical approach as well as his inimitable gift for hyper-detailed, surreal storytelling, and on “Dreams”, he delivers in spades. The multiple verses are delivered in a rapid-fire, almost spoken-word style, tempered with the mantra-like chorus of “dreams’ll keep coming but the dream done gone”, over and over, like some Blonde on Blondeouttake. Ritter increases the tension with each consecutive verse as the instruments become more unhinged, dissonant, and nightmarish.
More of this dark atmosphere is present in “Myrna Loy”, a whisper-quiet ballad that combines eloquent verses (“Still every now and then sometimes when the night sky gets so bright / And no Bethlehem of stars could match its burning”) with a simple chorus (“In the darkness / In the darkness”). It’s a beautiful, unrushed gem of a recording – although, at just over seven minutes, I could do without at least one verse.
Ritter’s collaboration with Weir spills over into Gathering in the form of “When Will I Be Changed”, a duet with the legendary singer/songwriter. It’s an epic, gospel-flavored ballad infused with rich instrumentation, including wide-open acoustic guitar strumming, soulful horns and vintage organ fills. Weir and Ritter’s vocals are a winning combination — the sturdy legend trading verses with the young folk genius — and is a high point in an album that’s positively stuffed with beautiful moments.
The shift in dynamics between ballads and faster numbers is refreshing and never inappropriately jarring. For every “Myrna Loy”, there’s the careening rush of a song like “Cry Softly”, a rockabilly stomper highlighted by spry guitar leads and a fast, infectious beat. “Cry softly / Real quietly / Your tears are unsightly,” Ritter sings as the band fires on all cylinders behind him.
Josh Ritter’s music is obviously the result of a broad range of influences, which he manages to sprinkle liberally and smartly throughout his work. It’s never derivative and always manages to sound fresh and new. That is a rare gift, and like the artists to whom he’s often compared — Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan being the more obvious ones — his status as a peerless singer/songwriter is unmatched. Gathering proves once again that it’s great to be living in a time when Josh Ritter is making music.