Josh Ritter ‘The Animal Years’

The hectic 16 months Josh Ritter spent touring for his “Hello Starling” album have become the basis of the musician’s fourth album, “The Animal Years” – also his major label debut.

Ritter escapes from the sweet, autobiographical balladry that made up much of his early work and enters a world of heavy-hearted narrative.

The production of Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine) adds an element of indie rock to Ritter’s sound, creating genre-busting music like that of Wilco or Bright Eyes. Ritter confronts big ideas the album’s “Girl in the War,” a song imbued with political indignation about the war in Iraq: “Peter said to Paul you know all those words we wrote/ are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.” The epic “Thin Blue Flame,” his most ambitious song to date, earns its nearly 10 minutes of length from its stream-of-conscious lyrics and its apocalyptic imagery via Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”.

“Lillian, Egypt” celebrates Ritter’s affinity for Americana; “Good Man” and “One More Mouth” conjure Nebraska-era Springsteen; and “In The Dark” has a sweet, Beatles-esque melody.

Ritter calls the album “a silent film – a mysterious old movie reel unearthed somewhere – about America today.” The songs are only loosely connected, but each plays like it was meant for its spot on the album. That’s true even of a poor-man’s lament titled “Idaho,” a track with the raw poetic emotion of early Leonard Cohen, where only Ritter’s voice, a faint acoustic strum and the hum of the studio can be heard.