Why is it that Josh Ritter, who is scheduled to play at Track 29 with his Royal City Band on July 28, isn’t better known in the U.S.? Although he’s a gifted storyteller with an ear for a catchy melody, he’s yet to have a Top-40 single, a sold-out tour or a popular tribute band playing his songs to enthusiastic audiences—all of which have occurred in Ireland, where he’s hugely popular.
One answer: Ritter’s songs—reminiscent of mid-1960s Dylan, early Paul Simon, and some of Springsteen’s early work—are long, dense, and read like short stories. Although the Irish have a long tradition of loving a well-turned phrase and rock critics in this country tend to laud this kind of writing, American music fans are often slow to embrace it. According to Nielsen’s Soundscan, Ritter’s best-selling album sold a mere 61,000 copies.
The sad paradox is that the U.S. music business, as everyone knows, tends to reward dross no matter how much critics appreciate artists like Ritter—and they do. By his third album, The Animal Years (2006), reviewers were rhapsodizing about his lyrical and melodic gifts. It’s a collection of well-crafted songs, many of which focus on death, both literally and figuratively. One such is “Wolves,” a pounding Springsteen-style anthem with a catchy sing-along chorus that belies the song’s theme about a desperate man lost in the woods and surrounded by wolves as a metaphor for the loss of a lover: “Then winter came and there was little left between us / Skin and bones of love won’t make a meal.”
The singer’s resignation in the verses is broken by the soaring, celebratory chorus endlessly repeating, “So long, so high,” over a rising piano riff—the kind of writing Springsteen perfected in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s arena-rocking stuff, but even The Boss had a hard time selling songs like this. Stuffed full of long, complex story songs, the album was widely admired, but didn’t sell well. Perhaps this explains why, by So Runs The World Away (2010), Ritter began to strip away his Dylan-like convolutions in search of the perfect pop song.
“Change of Time,” the second song on the album, possesses the simple melodic insistence of a classic pop song with the kind of swelling melodic accompaniment you’d expect to hear on a Bobby Vinton ballad. Needless to say, the lyric is a bit more sophisticated—“I had a dream last night / and when I opened my eyes / Your shoulder, your spine / Were shorelines in the moonlight / New worlds for the weary.” This is teen pop for adults.
Ritter has a gift for melody and a poet’s ear for language. But even though he flirts with pop on So Runs The World Away, his songs on that album are still too complex for casual consumption. On his next release, however, the six-song EP, Bringing In The Darlings (2012), he sounds for all the world like John Lennon on Double Fantasy. On the second of the six tracks, “Love’s Making It’s Way Back Home,” he croons a simple love song reminiscent of Buddy Holly, his voice drenched in echo and a softly cooing chorus drifting in behind him. It’s his most accomplished pop song to date with a chorus so catchy it begs come on and sing along—“Darlin’ / Will you let me call you darlin’ ” … it’s an earworm looking for a home.
Perhaps as an outlet for the more complex writing found in his early albums, Ritter published his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” last summer. In a review for the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King suggested that he keep at it. “This is the work of a gifted novelist, but the size of that gift has yet to be determined,” King wrote. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Judging by a 2010 interview in The New York Times, Ritter has accepted that he’s probably not going to make the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s apparently more important to him (as well as to the fans who’ll catch his show at Track 29) that his writing gets better with each new release.
The conundrum faced by many of Ritter’s heroes—including Leonard Cohen, with whom he’s often compared—is that success as a writer doesn’t necessarily mean commercial success. If writers make peace with that, as appears to be the case with Ritter, they’re freed from the star-making machinery that Joni Mitchell came to loathe and became more able to focus on crafting memorable songs. That’s something Ritter appears to be able to do with ease. And if he needs commercial success, he’s always got Ireland.
9 p.m. • Saturday, July 28
Track 29 • 1400 Market St.