One of the off-stage highlights of The Band’s The Last Waltz comes when Levon Helm discusses his love affair with the Big Apple. To hear him tell it, you go there, get your ass handed to you, and crawl home to lick your wounds, only to return and have it happen all over again. Eventually, ”you fall right in love with the place.” Aside from Richard Manuel’s dry ”I just wanna break even” remark, Helm’s anecdote is my favorite non-musical moment from Scorsese’s classic concert film.
Josh Ritter’s mid-career arc as a singer/songwriter has followed a similar path. Ritter’s early records sound as if a man who lived a bit had written them, a fella who had some experiences to call his own, possibly got his ass whooped once or twice, and put all that to song. Then, after his masterpiece The Animal Years, his albums became filled with literary stories of other men and women; grandiose, and at times more metaphorical characters, who stood in as proxy for Ritter who traded in his omniscient narrator role for that of the invisible author. Maybe this was his way of licking some wounds.
As time passed, my own love affair with the Idaho songwriter waned. Then I spied his new ”cozy” six-song EP in an indie record store in Philly last weekend. I’ll admit that the cover art and handsome fonts tugged at my designer’s heart and it was those elements — not Ritter’s recent work — that made the sale. I discovered that the now Brooklyn resident, who has been through a marriage and a separation, and had his debut novel published since I bailed on him, has ”fallen right in love” with something or someone. Maybe it is New York City itself, I don’t pretend to know, but what I hear on Bringing In the Darlings is a guy who is again comfortable putting himself on the wax, wearing the songs on his wrinkled sleeves with his tender heart pinned there too. The resulting hushed six-pack is indeed cozy, as advertised, and most definitely not for open-window highway driving (I tried), but the Josh Ritter charm, that endearing wink & a smile, that wooed my wife, my then 2-year-old daughter, and me is back.
”Why” asks some questions, as you probably could’ve guessed, that approximate a session or two on a therapist’s couch. Moderately deep stuff, if you choose to go there, however ”Why” doesn’t need to you to reflect for minute or initiate a shift of gears to be effective as a song. Its nimbly plucked midsection might be all the self-help you require.
The EP’s standout cut is ”Love Is Making Its Way Back Home,” a track that could easily pass as a Hello Starling outtake. There’s a warmth in the simple instrumentation, cooing backing vocals, and Ritter’s less heavy lyrics, reminiscent also of M. Ward’s more Etsy-worthy selections from Transistor Radio and Post War.
An abundance of personal stories are tucked neatly inside the remaining tracks, ”Darlin,’” ”Make Me Down,” ”See Me Through,” and ”Can’t Go To Sleep (Without You),” each of which mimic, with great effectiveness, dusty, first-person country music odes to love, heartbreak, and redemption.
Someone got his ass kicked and has returned with true love in his eyes, and it’s not just me.