Something about the song struck me. I loved it. The melody, the songcraft, the lyrics. It was a simple song, but undeniably amazing. I immediately had to find out more about this artist. I sought out the song and discovered this album, The Animal Years. I listened to it. And then I listened to it, again. I was in love with this album. As I sought out more of Josh’s music, discovering what an amazing musician, an amazing songwriter, and amazing singer, an amazing man, this was, I always returned to The Animal Years as my favorite of his albums. If I were a professional musician, this is the kind of album that would influence my music: it’s the kind of album I would dream of making.
So, what is it about The Animal Years that makes it such a special album?
The broad range of topics in touches on, sometimes with subtlety, other times more directly, and sometimes with such abstractness that it’s difficult to define exactly what is being said, but the spirit of the song still remains clear.
The album starts off with “Girl in the War.” Ritter has stated that he “attempted to write a song about the country, but it came out sounding like a love song.” “It’s about a bunch of people talking about problems and not getting past just the talking.” This is the kind of song that starts off an album and hooks the listener from the very beginning. A few months ago, I saw Josh live for the third time and technical difficulties caused the sound to go out on the stage for two songs. He stood there with his guitar and just played and belted out this song at the top of his lungs, filling the theater with just his music and his voice, no amplification and you could simply hear the sincerity in his voice and in the words.
Some have analyzed the album and found many references to the life and times of Mark Twain. “Monster Ballads,” the album’s third track, is specifically cited. When I hear this song, and the album’s second track, “Wolves,” and the album’s eighth track, “Good Man” (the song that brought Josh Ritter to my attention in the first place), I largely hear songs about music…about its power, about the memories it can invoke. The literary references to Twain are hard to ignore, though. There are many literary references throughout Ritter’s music, including his 2010 album So Runs the World Away which is a reference to a line from Hamlet. Ritter even delved into the literary world himself, penning a novel called Bright’s Passage.
The album’s fourth track “Lillian, Egypt,” seems to pay tribute to the silent movie era, perhaps a longing for seemingly simpler times. However, the story told seems to imply that perhaps people shared similar experiences then, and maybe not much has changed. This song too comes out as a love song.
“Idaho” is a tribute to Ritter’s home state. The song is almost entirely acapella.
“In the Dark” always reminds me of September 11th, and the hunt for Bin Laden and the ongoing war on terror. Ritter sings in the opening lines:
“We started looking for you
In the darker caves
We had a lot of love
We thought would light the way
We saw the wrecks of buildings
And ships that sank in starlight
We saw the ghosts of angels
That spoke of falls from tremendous heights”
The album’s crowning glory though is the nine-minute penultimate track, “Thin Blue Flame.” This is the most abstract track of the album. At first it may seem like a stream of consciousness, but Ritter seems to know exactly what he’s going for in the song. This is what I speak of when I mentioned earlier about songs that are abstract that it is difficult to pinpoint direct meaning while still allowing the spirit of the meaning to shine through: I don’t think I could pinpoint every reference or apply a direct meaning to everything in this song, but it’s still very clear where the sentiments of the song lie.
I will simply end by posting a video of “Thin Blue Flame,” the album’s nine-minute epic journey.
This is a beautiful and powerful album. Thank you Josh Ritter for giving me one of my favorite albums I’ve ever listened to.