When it first came out a few years ago, I was less than impressed with Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away. It felt like a disappointment, a comedown after the heartfelt, joyful tone of The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. It felt too well-mannered, too measured, too considered. I missed the Josh Ritter who’d cram way too many syllables into a line and then tumble into the chorus of “To the Dogs or Whoever,” the guy who played a chiming, almost clanging acoustic guitar with a grin you could hear in his voice. So Runs the World Away just seemed so…serious all the time.
So I gave up on the record for awhile. Wouldn’t listen to it. Spent most of my time with the EP he followed it up with, Bringing in the Darlings, which I absolutely adored.
But listening to that EP made me think that maybe I’d been a little too hard on So Runs the World Away, so I gave it another chance. And it started to grow on me. Now, every couple of months, I put the album on again, listen through it, and find a renewed appreciation for the growth in craft and songwriting that it represents. While it may not be as exciting or as energetic as his previous outings, and it may lack some a good chunk of the humor he’s presented before, So Runs the World Away is actually a pretty fantastic album.
The opening instrumental track, “Curtains,” feels like it belongs on a Britpop Pink Floyd record with its fade in and swirls of keyboards. It’s a pretty weak start to the album, but the second track, “Change of Time,” more than makes up for it. Ritter has played with layering instruments before, but he does it with aplomb here, adding guitars and keyboards and a backing vocal chorus to his basic finger-picked guitar figure. By the end, it feels every bit as epic as a U2 song, just without the overwrought hand wringing.
Things slow way down for the waltzy “The Curse,” a track I love more each time I hear it. Ritter is an excellent storyteller, and this the subject of the song – a mummy that comes back to life, falls in love with the woman who found his tomb, and becomes a media sensation when he reveals himself to the world, all while she slowly becomes the one who is shriveled up and unable to feel anything – is strange but oddly touching. It’s a truly beautiful song, and one that features only piano, keyboard flourishes, and a trumpet. After the bombast of the previous track, it’s a considerable shift, but the juxtaposition works well.
“Southern Pacifica” feels like the most traditionally-Josh Ritter-y song here, in terms of structure and instrumentation, though even here the horns and swirling keyboards that have marked this album thusfar are front and center. “Rattling Locks” is a jarring, jittery song with a palpable sense of paranoia, distrust, and betrayal seeping through the lyrics.
The story song “Folk Bloodbath” is probably the most predictable sort of song Ritter has ever written. It makes explicit the sort of influences he’s always worked subtly into his songs, referencing Stackalee, Little Delia, and a host of other folk music figures to tell a story of death, betrayal, and gunslingers. It’s a little too obvious, though, a little too much like songs we’ve heard before done better. It doesn’t bring anything new to this type of song, which is rather disappointing.
Things pick back up with “Lock” and “Lantern,” two songs that could have appeared on Historical Conquests and not felt out of place. They’re followed, though, by a string of songs that just drag, offering nothing new or interesting. Things are salvaged at the end, though, by “Long Shadows,” a stripped-down, acoustic-led number with a bounce in its step and self-assured tone that’s hard not to like. It’s a good, somewhat low-key way to end the album, and it points the way to the mostly-acoustic Bringing in the Darlings EP, which shares a tone and style with this track.
Ultimately, So Runs the World Away is a fairly solid album. There are some clunkers in the second half, and “Folk Bloodbath” could have been far more interesting than it ended up being, but when Ritter hits his mark, he nails it.