Josh Ritter's new album opens with a burial and closes with a hushed evocation of the Lord's Prayer, and in between those bookends are more biblical allusions, tales of lost loves, murder, personal transformations and men without countries, and songs about searching the American heartland for a purpose you may never find.
It's a pretty gloomy record in that respect, but it's somehow shot through with a glimmer of optimism.
"I think you're able to look more unflinchingly at dark things if behind it there's something that has a lightness to it," Ritter tells the Inlander. "When I think of the darkest of the Shakespeare plays, none of them would survive without humor. The great thing about records as a medium is you're allowed to make those transitions back and forth."
Fever Breaks is the Idaho-born singer-songwriters' 10th album in 20 years, which is the kind of milestone that music writers love to point out. But it's also the kind of milestone that Ritter says sneaked up on him not unlike when he turned 40 a couple years ago: One moment you're an unknown playing coffee shops in Boise, and the next you've been a touring musician for more than half your life.
What that shock of recognition did, though, was inspire Ritter to shake things up.
"I realized that I needed to open up my scope a little bit and bring new people into the making of the album," he says. "I began my project with a feeling that, 'OK, that thing I did was really fun and cool. Here's what I want to do different this time.' Each record leads to the next in that way."
So he recorded Fever Breaks in Nashville with producer Jason Isbell, the alt-country star who also plays guitar on the album alongside his regular backing band the 400 Unit. Ritter had toured with Isbell for a month before they decided to head into a studio together, and he says it was an ideal collaboration because they could relate to one another as performers and songwriters.
"It was a beautiful, natural thing. ... It was very organic. It wasn't set up by anybody," Ritter says. "We really felt a kinship, and their music blew me away."
The 400 Unit's participation has, not surprisingly, resulted in one of Ritter's more musically muscular records, with electric full-band arrangements breaking out between the elegiac acoustic numbers. But Fever Breaks is also one of Ritter's more overtly political albums, something he has tended to avoid in the past. "The Torch Committee," for instance, is a Leonard Cohen-style screed in which an unnamed interrogator tenaciously convinces someone to turn on their own (shades of McCarthyism, or of false confessions coerced by police), while "All Some Kind of Dream" is a soul-searcher about the current plight of refugees: "I saw the children in the holding pens / I saw the families ripped apart ... There was a time when we held them close / And weren't so cruel, low, and mean."
"I had something very personal that I had to say, and I was looking for the words to say it. You end up writing about something because you haven't heard it being explained sufficiently," Ritter says. "I wanted to try and capture a moment in time. I wanted to capture this moment in 2019, in a way that had some real emotion behind it. I wanted to provide an unsettling feeling, and the songs needed to hang together based on the feeling."
Despite the change-up in both style and content that Fever Breaks represents in Ritter's career, its live iteration will place him right back in familiar territory. He'll hit Spokane this week with his reliable Royal City Band, a group that he's been playing with for years, and Ritter says they're still figuring out how certain album cuts will translate to the live setting.
"You construct the song in the studio like you put together an animal in a laboratory. You don't know what it's gonna do when you set it loose on stage," he says. "Songs are unpredictable. For that reason, I'm really excited to introduce these songs with this ferocious band that I've got. It's a different band than I recorded with, but they bring their own telepathy with it.
"We take artistic leaps of faith with each other, and hopefully that comes across. That's what we really live for." ♦
Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band with Penny & Sparrow • Fri, June 21 at 8 pm • $27.50; VIP tickets available at $149 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 244-3279