Always Been in My Nature: Josh Ritter’s history of violence

fever breaks

Like Martin Scorsese and Cormac McCarthy, Josh Ritter is drawn to histories of violence. In songs about misbegotten wars and gun-toting vigilantes, he’s traced the gnarled roots of American bloodshed, untangling the particular strains of solitude and exceptionalism that give birth to sainted renegades and self-justifying killers. These themes are well-documented in the folk tradition, and Ritter presents them in all their dread and allure. Consider a song like “The Temptation of Adam,” where two lovers fumble to make a life together in the shadow of the atom bomb, its imagery suggesting that the instinct to unleash carnage looms large over even our best intentions and purest inclinations; it’s emblematic of Ritter’s dogged chronicle of our collective heart of darkness. Consider also a composition from his album So Runs the World Away, where Ritter rummages through the haunted graveyard of American song and story for scenes of brutality and vengeance, assembling them into stomach-churning pastiche. The title of the song: “Folk Bloodbath.” In it, Ritter sounds like Indiana Jones coming face to face with the flesh-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant: A committed scholar and folklorist, he’s dug too deep and seen too much to return unrattled to the land of the living.

Fever Breaks—Ritter’s 10th studio album—opens with the kind of song he was born to write; not merely a continuation of his excavations, but one of the deepest digs yet. “Ground Don’t Want Me” is a gunfighter ballad, belonging to a folk lineage that encompasses both Marty Robbins’ big-iron epics and Guy Clark’s wistful revisions. Ritter inhabits a man living under a curse (“you’ll never get to heaven, son, so go to hell real slow”), fated to roam the Earth as an unbeatable quick-draw. No matter how many impossible, hopelessly outgunned situations he puts himself in, he somehow always blazes his way out and leaves a pile of bodies in his wake (“for every man a box, for every hole a rose”). He becomes a kind of ghost, wandering from town to town weighed down by his murderous guilt, envying the many men he’s sent to peaceful rest but unable to find it himself. The song reveals a writer who’s all but unequalled at finessed metaphors (“I’ve stacked the deck, I’ve held a dead man’s hand so many times”) and mordant prose (“in every town the brokenhearted rang their steeple bells”), but it’s his moral clarity that cuts deepest; Ritter’s gunfighter is being eaten alive by sin and shame, and he’s resigned to the fact that his past has prescribed his future, that the blood he’s shed has stained his soul. (Devotees may find it rewarding to imagine that this is the same boastful gun from 2007’s “Mind’s Eye,” brought low by time and conscience.)  Later in the album, Ritter reckons with an even ancienter tradition in his hardscrabble performance of “Silver Blade,” a song he originally wrote for Joan Baez; it’s a murder ballad about a maiden who escapes her villainous captor only by lodging a knife between his ribs, then using the same blade to dig the man’s unconsecrated grave. The lyrics include an insouciant forensic account of the deceased’s worm-ridden body, corporeal evidence of a toppled tyrant and lawless justice. It’s a mythology of violence rendered in flesh and bone; it establishes Fever Breaks as another folk bloodbath.

It might almost be unbearable were it not also exhilarating—a robust and freewheeling record that’s unlike any he’s made before. For that you can give much of the credit to folk hero/rock and roll warrior Jason Isbell, who produced the record in Nashville and plays on it with his well-decorated band the 400 Unit. Their most obvious contribution is muscle, and in “Old Black Magic” they provide the headliner with the most raucous moment of garage-rock mayhem in his entire catalog; he sings himself ragged just to be heard about the din of the guitars and the bleat of an organ. Yet Isbell and his troupe are as much about brains as brawn, and what makes them so symbiotic with Ritter is how nimbly they can adapt to the needs of his rich, varied songwriting: The 400 Unit crunches and grinds on “Losing Battles,” skips and gallops across “On the Water,” conjures dark storm clouds and ominous flashes of lighting on the sinister and dramatic “The Torch Committee.” Boon accompanist Amanda Shires, a blessing to every record she’s on, gives “Silver Blade” its sharp edges through flinty fiddle playing, while the band digs deep for both groove and twang on the loping “A New Man.” For all the ground covered here, Isbell’s most critical effect is to bring focus: Fever Breaks feels clean and compact with its 10 songs in 45 minutes, almost the opposite of Gathering’s rambling generosity.

The depth and breadth of these performances are the backdrop for wide-ranging Ritter originals that interrogate folk forms and elucidate all the lessons he’s learned about our appetite for destruction—one of the most significant lessons being that the true violence is the inner violence, the most rancorous battle the battle against the self. Ritter pines for rebirth in “A New Man,” and over the din of “Losing Battles” he casts the pursuit of justice as both a noble calling and a fool’s errand (“sometimes the righteous win,” he sings—but most times…). That same song suggests a history of violence encoded in human DNA, situating these calamitous mythologies under the Mark of Cain; “it’s always been in my nature to be the beast,” Ritter admits, facing down the man in the mirror like Nick Lowe did in “The Beast in Me” or Richard Thompson in “The Rattle Within.” Elsewhere, Fever Breaks studies the violence of separation. “I Still Love You (Now and Then),” one of Ritter’s most brutally understated divorce songs, finds a lovesick man chronicling the wreckage of his life as though describing the ruins of a battle field. But perhaps the greatest lesson of Fever Breaks is that violence to others is always, ultimately, violence to the self. “The Torch Committee” is the album’s dramatic fulcrum, a political allegory narrated in detached deadpan and outlining step-by-step the ways in which fear is weaponized to divide a people from itself (“sadly it’s the awful truth/ it’s them or us, it’s them or you”). And in “All Some Kind of Dream,” Ritter surveys the state of our crumbling ideals through the eyes of the immigrant and the refugee; the wayfaring stranger and the kids in the cages: “There was a time when we held them close/ and weren’t so cruel, low, and mean/ And we did good unto the least of these/ or was it all some kind of dream?” It’s a psalm of lament for a country that’s lost itself in an abattoir of its own making, but in the closing “Blazing Highway Home,” Ritter dares to dream there’s a road to peace somewhere, in this world or the next. It’s not much to go on, but when even hope can seem like a losing battle, it may be just enough for now.

Whistles Right Past You: Andrew Bird says to hell with this

my finest

“I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster,” sings Andrew Bird on his new album, persuasively titled My Finest Work Yet. “The end just has to be near.” It’s not the first time he’s portended the apocalypse. More than a decade ago, on an album called The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird painted a strangely reassuring picture of societal collapse, even promising there’d be snacks. These days, his outlook is less rosy. “The Earth spins faster, whistles right past you/ whispers death in your ear,” Bird laments. Those whispers come in different keys— gun violence, rising tides, the dead ends of nationalism— but while these 10 new songs are littered with the ruins of empire (“they say Rome wasn’t built in a day/ but it all came down in the month of May”), the larger issue is how the hard work of neighborly love and participative democracy has been replaced by the comfort and convenience of disembodied online rancor. Bird’s distressed but never despairing record is a challenge to log off of Twitter and get back to the grind; it’s both a call to activism and a clarification of what meaningful activism actually entails. “No more excuses, no more apathy,” one song says; the world groans under the weight of indifference, but My Finest Work Yet lights a fire. “We’re gonna turn it around,” Bird pledges, because what other choice do we have? As Flannery O’Conner would say, the life you save may be your own.

Bird underscores the high stakes with some of his most direct writing to date—though such things are always relative. He still rattles off wry tongue-twisters (“for those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn/ you know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice”), and pivots easily to historic allusion (“it feels like 1936/ in Catalonia”). Jokes about J. Edgar Hoover bump up against references to King Ghidora, and just leave it to Andrew Bird to contextualize some of his most straight-ahead topical truisms (“history forgets the moderates”) within a retelling of Greek myth. Sisyphus, legendarily forced to spend eternity rolling a heavy stone up a mountain, has long been an emblem of complacency or addiction, and Bird’s iteration makes sure to acknowledge the collateral damage left in his wake (“had a house down there but I lost it long ago”). But where the Sisyphus of lore remains eternally stuck in his rut, Bird’s character has enough, and becomes a hero just for refusing to push his burden any further. “Did he raise both fists and say, ‘to hell with this’/ And just let the rock roll?” Bird asks, finding holy purpose in noncompliance. The song becomes a wondrous meditation on the blessedness of whole-assing when half measures offer greater comfort: “I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god,” Bird’s Sisyphus thunders, preferring a leap of faith into the abyss over remaining in stasis any longer.

But Bird neither fails nor flails here. My Finest Work Yet does indeed feel like a consolidation of strengths—plucky, funny, sophisticated, tuneful. You’ll only need to listen to these songs a time or two before you’re able to whistle along, something Bird does often, imbuing his songs with just the twist of whimsy or shadow of menace they require. The whimsy is balanced by a jostling physicality; Bird produced the album with Paul Butler, favoring live vocal takes and the crackling energy of a small band—splashes of piano, upright bass, guitar, crisp snare pops and cavernous rim shots from boon drummer Abraham Rounds. Bird’s violin is the anchor, gently plinking out tunes and then cresting into ravishing melody. His music can conjure a full range of motion, and several songs sound like they were made to move bodies: “Proxy War” rises and falls with the buoyant bounce of Motown, while “Don the Struggle” works like a wind-up toy, a stately march suddenly exploding into frenzied dance. Even working in an intimate framework, Bird shows an easy way with dramatic build-up: “Archipelago” has enough whoah-ohs to fuel an Arcade Fire song, while “Olympians” gallops and then sprints on its way to a fist-pumping chorus.

In every way, these are songs of action and idealism, even as they acknowledge inertia’s sweet seductions. “Bloodless,” a slinky cabaret, imagines a moral landscape where the good guys equivocate, the evil are truly evil, and most of us stagnate in the murky middle; we just “hem and we haw,” Bird opines, and you sense that he’d almost rather you goose-step with the fascists than sit on the bench. (“Because you are lukewarm,” a relevant Bible verse says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”) Bird posits that the powerful have a vested interest in sowing division, just so long as it doesn’t bubble over into actual revolt: “They’re banking on the sound and fury,” he observes. “Makes you wonder what it’s all got to do with me.” He answers his own question on “Fallorun,” where gossamer violin notes build into U2-worthy euphoria, and where the state of our union has plenty to do with all of us. “We could have been together/ But you couldn’t stand the weather here,” he mourns, and he could be talking either to a faithless lover, a wayward neighbor, or anyone who’s ever talked a big game but then buckled when the shit hit the fan. The song appeals to those who take a stand without making a sacrifice, channeling all their moral fervor into empty and ego-stoking gestures. “You think you’re making choices,” Bird sings, “But there’s no one really here/ Just tone-deaf angry voices/ That are breathing in your ear.”

Bird’s idealism may initially scan as overly earnest, but what he’s offering here is counterprogramming for a kind of false idealism, the one that says the people who talk the loudest are making the biggest difference. Crucially, for all the album’s concern with bridge-building, My Finest Work Yet doesn’t dispute the existence of injustice, nor does it suggest we acquiesce to it. Enemies are invoked a few times; an oblique reference to an abominable “Man of the Year” entry is the closest Bird gets to naming a particular boogeyman, while on the winding “Archipelago” he suggests that we define ourselves largely by the people we choose to hate. But while Bird spurns fearmongers, he stops short of disdaining them, understanding it to be short-sided and self-destructive to do so: “Now there are no sides,” he moans, democracy’s wreckage strewn at his feet. “Try selling that one to an angry mob.” He understands what James Baldwin was talking about when he said, “what you do to me, you do to you”—that ultimately, we sink or swim together, that violence to the Other is violence to our whole body. That’s why My Finest Work Yet bets everything on the painful and necessary work of incarnation and intimacy; in “Proxy War,” online discourse is contrasted with “real life,” where words have the power to draw blood and stop time. In “Sisyphus,” love is the precipitating force in our hero’s unburdening; “it’s got nothing to do with fate and everything to do with you,” he confesses to an unnamed beloved. And in the closing “Bellevue Bridge Club,” Bird threatens to pull his slumbering partner out of bed and onto the floor, promising paradigm-altering, empathy raising scenes “of life beyond your front door.” There, just across the threshold, opportunity abounds for connection, for justice, for truth and reconciliation—but unless we’re vigilant, it’ll all whistle right past us.