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Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter gets ready to get down with a rollicking new sound

Writing on the Rocks

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For a folk-leaning singer-songwriter, Josh Ritter's recorded output can be a little unpredictable.

The Idaho native, who will perform this week during Piccolo Spoleto, got his start as a classic coffee-shop troubadour, writing tunes inspired by Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt but invested with Ritter's own unique charisma. Whereas his heroes can be weary and irascible, he tends toward steadier rumination and measured joy, investing his songs with a pounding heartbeat and true-to-life emotion.

After a couple of records in that vein, 2006's The Animal Years marked a distinct sonic shift for Ritter and his backing band as the arrangements became more chamber-like and cerebral, even in their more rollicking moments. The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter the following year doubled-down on the shape-shifting, offering up Spoon-indebted indie grooves and breezy, almost Eagles-esque country-rock amid more typical fare. Ritter would go on to work between and around these different modes, following his own muse and literary persuasions down whatever avenue he saw fit, confident that his devoted following would both grow and follow him along thanks to his adventurous spirit and dedication to his craft.

"You're always working against what you did on the last record. You're always trying to make things better and different," he says. "And there is the expectation of what the crowd is going to respond to. But really, if you're doing your job, there's nothing you can do to make that any easier or more predictable. You can go for more predictable, but it's not going to lead to a good record."

And true to form after 2013's The Beast in its Tracks, a primarily acoustic record chroni-cling his divorce and, in part, the beginning of a new romance, last year's Sermon on the Rocks was a decidedly more rollicking and witty affair, riffing on the difficulties of finding answers in Christian fundamentalism behind a kaleidoscopic blend of pseudo-funky organ and new-wave guitars. "I'm getting ready to get down," Ritter sings with unfettered glee on the lead single of the same name as he raps a wordy, tongue-tying update of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" over a sparkling lead guitar line. And that moment feels worlds away from the Blood on the Tracks vibe of his last album.

The giddy tumble of words and rhymes is a reoccurring feature of Ritter's songs, with older tunes like "Wings," "Thin Blue Flame," and "To the Dogs of Whoever" having a similarly gut-stuffing quality.

"Those songs feel like taking your dog to the beach and having them see the limitless expanse that they can run and just run," says Ritter with a bit of wonder. "That's how I feel about songs like that. There's something that grabs hold of you and you think, I want to take this as far as I can take it. I want to cram as many words in here as I can and describe a whole world. And it happens on an occasion. It's a distinct style that only comes out sometimes."

Ritter's novelistic approach to storytelling and character sketches is a recurring feature in his songwriting. "The Curse" from So Runs the World Away captures a love story between an archeologist and a magically reanimated mummy. "The Temptation of Adam" is a romance that buds in a nuclear missile silo bunker in a presumably near-apocalyptic scenario, and "You Don't Make it Easy Babe" tells of an oddly endearing love-struck peeping Tom.

"I just seem to like latch on stories more than I care to dissect my own," Ritter muses. "I'm of the belief that when you're writing, no matter what it is, it's going to come out as partially autobiographical. It's going to have all the preoccupations you had at the time. And I find comfort in that. I don't think that constant self-examination is all that interesting. The wider world and the imagination of the wider world is so much more interesting to me."

Then, betraying his own literary instincts (Ritter published a well-received novel, Bright's Passage, in 2011), the singer-songwriter draws a comparison to one of his influences.

"There's this story that Flannery O'Connor gave her stories to someone down the street, and that person came back and said, 'These people act just like you expect them to act.' And to me that's the sign of a good story, when the characters and their motivations end up making sense in and of themselves," he says. " I don't know if that has anything to do with me or my writing, or if it has my own personality in there, but they do end up feeling like that. Something in me is tying up knots and making the characters do that stuff. So it probably is about me."

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