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Sermon on the Rocks

Singer-songwriter pulls off an unlikely about-face toward New Wave storytelling

Josh Ritter

Laura Wilson

“I feel a change in the weather/I feel a change in me,” Josh Ritter sings during a telling moment on his eighth album. Two years after Beast in its Tracks, his emotionally vulnerable breakup album, the singer-songwriter is back with an entirely new approach. Switching from sparse, folksy acoustic melodies to terse, percussive Eighties textures, and from personal confessions to vivid character sketches, Ritter’s new record couldn’t be any more different from his last. Seldom do transformations feel this effortless. 

Ritter has always been a verbose songwriter, yet he’s never before taken quite this much pleasure in the English language. On “Homecoming,” one of the album’s many highlights, he has his Van Morrison “Madame George” moment, turning a simple lyric (“my heart will stay”) into a repeated, mumbling mantra as he loses himself in a musical trance. On “Getting Ready to Get Down,” the album’s too-goofy-to-be-true lead single, Ritter is just about rapping his playful verses over a New Wave guitar line as he tells the story of an adventurous young woman struggling to fit in with her pious hometown. But he pulls it off, turning the song into a raucous celebration of self-reliance. “Jesus hates your high school dances,” the Idaho-born singer-songwriter nearly shouts mid-song. 

Elsewhere, there’s plenty of recognizable Ritter. “Henrietta, Indiana” is a expansive folk-gothic offering that takes the premise of Springsteen’s “Youngstown” as its starting point before exploding in a dozen different directions. “The Stone” is a torchy ballad that paints Ritter as a gentle guide offering solace. These cheery-sounding tunes often hide a darker sense of pain and prophecy, what Ritter has called “messianic oracular honky-tonk” when describing Sermon.  With his latest, Ritter has achieved the near impossible, fully reimagining his own art while still holding close to what’s always made him special.

In This Article: Josh Ritter

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