On his newest album, The Beast in Its Tracks, Josh Ritter grapples with his recent divorce, yet none of the songs come off as overly bitter or spiteful. Among the heartbreak and pain, Ritter carves out a new beginning, treating the entire situation with poise and grace through his characteristically excellent lyrics. Musically, nothing here will surprise fans of the singer-songwriter’s previous work, although The Beast in Its Tracks is considerably sparser than Historical Conquests and feels more worn than albums like The Animal Years or So Runs the World Away. This approach gives the album an intimate feel befitting its subject matter, and is especially effective on the tracks that deal most explicitly with heartbreak. Even with its more subdued nature, the album contains enough sonic variety to keep from growing stale. It is paced wonderfully. I’d like to think you can divide the songs on The Beast in Its Tracks into three categories: heartbreak and pain, rejuvenation and new love, and closure and understanding.
The structure of the record is pretty interesting. It isn’t until track five, “Nightmares,” that Ritter really starts to deal with his darker emotions. In this way, the album’s narrative seems to resemble the reality of a break-up, refusing to suggest that recovery from a painful experience always moves in a straight line from hurt to healing. The road to healing is often a bumpy one, full of setbacks and regressions, and by placing the two darkest songs on the album, “Nightmares” and “The Appleblossom Rag,” in the midst of happier songs, Ritter reflects this truth. A jaunty acoustic guitar and Ritter’s higher-pitched vocals take the edge off of the beautifully depressing imagery that makes up most of “Nightmares”: “I know where the nightmares sleep, on what fodder do they feed? I followed one back down to hell, and I spent some time down there myself.” The lyrics of “The Appleblossom Rag” resound with the same sense of pain, and paired with just a solitary acoustic guitar and Ritter’s tired vocals, it is easily the most emotionally devastating track on the album. Focusing on a kitchen rag that his ex-wife left, Ritter transforms this object into a symbol of their lost love: “Oh, that appleblossom rag! Lord, I’m such a fool, for things that sing so sweet and sad and are so goddamn cruel.”
While Ritter’s poetry may be at its best on these tracks, the happier tracks are perhaps more musically engaging and do a good job of balancing the album. Containing equal amounts of hope and world-weariness, “Hopeful” floats along, supported by bluesy electric guitars and languid drumming as Ritter describes his journey of healing. The background vocals that unexpectedly break into the song near the end add another dimension to the musical backdrop and help lend Ritter’s struggles a universality: “Everybody’s gonna hurt like hell, sometimes.” Just a couple of songs later, “New Lover” exudes joy, its brisk pace and steady bass drum giving the album a jolt of energy. Although the subject of the song is his new lover, the lyrics are directed at his ex-wife, and, while they carry a certain vindictiveness, the words also highlight the healing process: “Praise the water under bridges, the time they say will heal. Praise the fonder that still grows on the absent heart and fields. Praise be to this pain, these days it’s all I seem to feel.” In many ways, “New Lover” tells the entire story of the album in one song, but it doesn’t reach the point of closure that the album’s final tracks impart to us.
The album’s penultimate track, the hymn-like “Joy to You Baby,” boasts a repeated refrain and cyclical guitar riff that gives the song a sense of completion. Near the end of the song, Ritter sings, “If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone. But then I couldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been. I guess it all adds up to joy to the end.” This weary resignation to the indelible and important marks that relationships leave is, by this point in the album, filled with a well-earned honesty. The Beast in Its Tracks concludes with a lullaby of sorts in “Lights,” a tender ballad directed to Ritter’s new paramour. A rebirth of sorts, the song ends the album on a peaceful note, as Ritter muses, “Sometimes I can’t see, that don’t mean I’m blind. It’s just your light in my eyes.” For an album that has spent almost every track referencing Ritter’s past relationship, “Lights” turns the page to a new chapter, which makes it a satisfying conclusion.
On The Beast in Its Tracks, Josh Ritter embraces the pain and heartbreak of his recent divorce and comes away from it with a fantastic batch of songs that refuse to sugarcoat reality or bow to depression. The album manages to avoid the maudlin extremes of the break-up album with a superb balance of music and lyrics, and Ritter’s commitment to making a well-crafted album stands out here. While the album ends with light eclipsing dark and joy overtaking heartbreak, Ritter takes care, over the rest of the record, to remind us that this new start cannot come without traversing the path of pain. Starting with a devastating situation, The Beast in Its Tracks beautifully shows that redemption is possible, especially in brokenness.