Josh Ritter’s prolific consistency has always been a blessing and a burden. The ten mostly-great roots-rock albums he’s released since the turn of the century have helped foster a uniquely supportive fanbase. And yet, it has been over a decade since any of his new records, which continue to impress as much as his earlier work, have made any sort of larger cultural mark. “At last, her combination of age and consistency has caught up with her,” read an apt Pitchfork essay on the lack of attention the reliably great Lucinda Williams has received in her late career, “enabled by our obsessive ability to track what’s new and seemingly important at the expense of what’s familiar though no less powerful.” A similar sentiment might be applied to Ritter.
Fever Breaks, the latest work from the 42 year-old singer-songwriter, blazes no new emotional or musical ground. And yet the album, coming after the rare lackluster offering, 2017’s Gathering, feels like a vital career summation, a survey course sampler in a word-swilling artist’s narrative gifts and endearing empathy.
The album is produced by Jason Isbell, an admirer who understands the ins and outs of what Ritter is striving for at his best. It’s a well-suited pairing: Ritter sounds recharged on the Tom Petty heartland stampedes of “Ground Don’t Want Me” and “Old Black Magic.” He is bitterly inquisitive when singing about the desecrated state of the American project, either in the form of folk-revival protest (“All Some Kind of Dream”) or “Girl in the War”-style allegory (“The Torch Committee”). He is perhaps at his best when he’s full-grin reflecting on the folksy heart-bursts of “On the Water and “I Still Love You (Now and Then).” On the latter, he finds fresh ways to mine the same type of emotional terrain of post-breakup grace he explored on 2013’s Beast in its Tracks.
“You must become a new man,” Ritter sings. Over the past several years, he’s become fascinated in self-change as a lyrical trope. It makes sense: a songwriter as dependable as Ritter can easily fall victim to retreading past ground as the years roll on. But Fever Breaks is a moving exercise in reshuffling and restating what a long-time talent does best in a just-new-enough guise.