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.