Josh Ritter brings his characteristic narrative style back to the table on his latest album. Sermon on the Rocks casts its creator somewhere between the role of an overzealous advice columnist and a salt-of-the-earth memoirist. Ritter’s folksy, Americana creations have always mined from his inner life—the aftermath of his recent divorce or circled, elaborate constructions of personal history. But while Sermon on the Rocks retains vestiges of his cathartic process of rebuilding through song, it spends most of its breath re-focusing on Ritter’s delivery with a sense of urgency on behalf of the audience—one who has plenty of reasons to be captivated.
The album opens with the odd man out, “Birds of the Meadow,” a charged-up forewarning of the apocalypse. “Birds” unites the lunacy of the prophets of old with a very modern brand of deliberate, bitter carelessness. The layers are steely and thrumming, and gems like Ritter’s description of himself as, “your heebie-jeebie man, in ecstasy,” set the lyrical bar high for the proceeding album.
Luckily, the collection’s wit never disappoints. The following tracks contain plenty of ear-tilting lines worth remembering beyond its first listen, though they struggle to fully come together in unified sentiment by the last track. Ritter seems to take the album two ways—leading listeners into twangy sentimentality while simultaneously shoving them down a rabbit hole of moodiness and retribution.
In the first category, Ritter presents “Where the Night Goes,” “Cumberland,” and “Young Moses,” among others, each building off a forward-bound, head-bobbing beat that strums along about pilgrimage and first love on dirt roads. “Getting Ready to Get Down,” the album’s star on the charts, takes this earnestness one step further as small towns give way to flouted closed minds and an infectious disregard of self-consciousness. It’s a little mocking, but the self-effacing lack of pretense is what catches the ear here. On the more wistful end of the light hearted, there’s “Henrietta, Indiana,” and “Homecoming,” two storyteller songs that play it close to the vest and maintain a simple frankness that hold back Ritter’s occasional inclination to over dramatize.
The album’s other extreme—one of of deep bitterness—seeps through on tracks like “Seeing Me Around,” in which Ritter uses the very act of his existence as a vindictive effort toward malicious forces of his past. “The Stone” is a slow dance in a lonely room with the same aching base, offering an unexpected moment of poignancy as Ritter laments the inevitability of love and loss. It’s the kind of song which assures the listener that they can’t quite understand the artist’s variety of pain, and a little thankful for the fact.
Ritter’s experimentation between these two poles—of upbeat sentiment and lagging bitterness—in the album tends to get smothered in mechanics rather than revealing anything new. The rock-reaching “A Big Enough Sky,” gets the ball rolling, but lacks uniqueness in the common array of good rural anthems. “Lighthouse Fire” gets bogged-down in too many repetitions, a frequent misstep of the artist that distracts from tenderness rather than enhancing it. “My Man on a Horse is Here” closes out the album on brooding, spacey note that ties up the vibes of longing and inevitability with an attempt at cohesion, albeit not an entirely successful one.
What volatile energy Ritter puts into depicting all walks of life eventually serves to deaden the emotional punch through the full tracklist. In his quick turns of phrase and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it language plays, there is a definitive tendency to stay in the shallow end rather than digging out the kind of rawness listeners can sink teeth into. It probably won’t move anyone to a revelation, but many won’t be alone in smiling along to the artist’s quips or nodding along to that exquisitely effective depiction of a nation’s microcosms. If they look close, there may even be some peeks of emotional hard-hitters along the way.
Featured Image by Signature Sounds Recordings