Recently, neuroscientists have made the case for the theory that 10,000 hours of practice is the threshold for mastering any skill. The son of two neurosurgeons, Josh Ritter — who has achieved international acclaim for the music he dropped out of college to pursue — has clearly been putting in his time on writing songs. "If I get them wrong," he tells the Scene, "I feel uncomfortable in them like I feel in an uncomfortable suit. Everything about designing and fitting that suit is very subtle."
That deft touch of the tailor is key to the strength of Ritter's latest album. Written in the wake of a bitter divorce, The Beast in Its Tracks could have portrayed the seething despair that immediately follows the end of some relationships. After all, great records like Blood on the Tracks, Still Crazy After All These Years and Sea Change came from the strewn splinters of a love that could only be seen clearly after it fell apart. The first batch of songs reflected the vitriol Ritter felt in his veins, but through the pain, he could tell they didn't fit.
"These lines I was singing weren't songs yet," Ritter says in a letter to his fans, "just stillborn, terrifying things. Far from allowing me some release, seeing them lying there on the page before me they only made me lonesome."
Following his instinct, Ritter held off until he'd dealt with his heartbreak, making Beast a meditation on moving on — a no less real, difficult or personal task, rendered in uncluttered arrangements comparable to M. Ward's best work with help from producer and longtime bandmate Sam Kassirer. The vengeful "Evil Eye" is there. The dream-haunting incubi of "Nightmares" are there, their ways and habits contemplated like Thoreau's neighbors in the woods by Walden Pond. "New Lover" doesn't exactly forgive Ritter's ex — "If you're sad and you are lonesome, and you've got nobody true / I'd be lyin' if I said that didn't make me happy, too" — but shows there's also room for a path to make peace, to achieve closure rather than wallowing, shattered, forever.
"That was a record of preoccupation," Ritter tells the Scene. "It was intense, and thankfully limited to a certain period of time. I'm really happy that I had a chance to write about it, and I'm happy with the songs from it. But now inspiration can begin to come from all kinds of places. It's like I'm back alive in the world."
Ritter's already at work on a new novel, the follow-up to 2011's exploration of the mind and the supernatural, Bright's Passage. He and his partner, novelist Haley Tanner, have a 7-month-old baby girl, Bea, who Ritter describes as "fat and happy." Both join Ritter on tour, in their own special section of the bus. It's not such a big transition from regular life with The Royal City Band, he says: "In a real family kind of way, we help each other out, solve problems and have fun. That's all a record is, hopefully — a way to hang out with the people you love."
Looking forward, Ritter expects to keep using the instincts that have served him so well thus far.
"I'm mostly trying to find something that makes sense to me," Ritter says. "It doesn't matter what that is — but if I can just find something that makes sense, write it down, and get it right, then I'll be happy. That's always what I go for."
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