I’ve been a fan of Josh Ritter’s music since his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away. That album unfolds like a richly detailed novel, with diverse themes ranging from scientific discovery, polar exploration, murder, and there’s even a love story song featuring an archaeologist and a mummy. Fever Breaks is his 5th album of the decade and his 10th overall, and once again, it makes for a compelling listen. Recorded in Nashville, the album was produced by fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, and here Ritter is backed by Isbell’s band – the 400 Unit.
Josh Ritter’s music has never been overtly political, but in this case there are a couple of tracks that address some pressing issues in the US. The album’s moody centrepiece, “The Torch Committee” has Ritter speaking his chilling words in an almost matter-of-fact manner. There’s talk of by-laws being breached, the process of law, names being crossed off a list and “the truth of rumours lately heard, that there come monsters in our midst”. Hiding behind the technicalities of the law, the narrator calls forth the “hungry mob and angry crowd” to root out “the root of every evil done” for the supposed good of the people “by means not meant for the light of day”. This is a dark song, the seriousness of the subject matter underlined by Amanda Shires’ haunting fiddle and a menacing guitar that broods in the background, waiting to be unleashed.
On “All Some Kind of Dream”, Ritter returns to the same theme, seeing “children in the holding pens” and “families ripped apart”. “For it seems that these are darker days, than any others that we’ve seen” he sings before wishing that it was all some kind of dream. The upbeat nature of the song belies its underlying core of a nightmare made real; the same kind of message in the style that Dylan was delivering more than fifty years ago.
“Silverblade” sees Ritter use his fingerpicked acoustic to good effect, recounting the tale of a woman who takes revenge on a man who forces himself on her. The story is framed in terms of a lord who owns a castle and the lady who catches his eye, but it is impossible not to read this as an allegory to recent stories related to the #MeToo movement.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. A couple of tracks benefit from the muscular backing provided by the 400 Unit. “Old Black Magic” sounds like it was dredged up from the bottom of a swamp: Ritter growling away about that “old black magic rolling in” whilst the music rises in the background – all gnarly guitars and moody keys. The anthemic “Losing Battles” features some trademark Ritter lyrics, words tumbling out at a fair old rate before you’ve even had a chance to digest what you’re hearing. “From the apple tree, I ripped a snake, It was a poison but I knew its worth. Kept it in a box of wood, Fed it all my sins and apples.” I’m not sure what all of that means – it probably includes a healthy dose of biblical imagery – but when you hear him singing with utter conviction, he makes you believe in something! On “A New Man”, he sings about a personal evolution, sounding not unlike a latter-day Springsteen, but the style is all his own and this is a track that builds beautifully both lyrically and musically throughout its running length.
Whilst I wouldn’t pick this as my favourite Josh Ritter album (let’s face it, it’s got stiff competition), Fever Breaks is another well-crafted piece of work. There are a couple of tracks that see a bit humdrum by his high standards, but most of the songs are strong, his trademark lyrics are used to full effect, and the fact that he’s recorded the album with Jason Isbell and his band give the album a subtle twist. It’s not markedly different from the sound of his other albums but it’s a welcome wrinkle on yet another fine album from one of the 21st century’s premier songwriters.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.