Full disclosure: I’ve heard of Josh Ritter many times throughout the years (his collaboration with the legendary Bob Weir on “When Will I Be Changed,” from his last album, 2017’s Gathering, caught my attention), but I haven’t actually heard much of Ritter’s catalog. When it was announced that Jason Isbell would be producing his latest album, Fever Breaks (Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers), as well as playing on the record along with his band, the 400 Unit, I thought it time to finally dive into what I was missing.
Isbell and the 400 Unit’s presence are prominently featured in the first single, “Old Black Magic.” The slightly overdriven guitars and tight groove compliment Ritter’s understated, raspy delivery as he describes the weary, downtrodden narrator who is ready for “that old black magic” to come rolling in. It eventually leads to a scorching, fuzzy guitar solo that begs you to crank the volume. Clearly, Ritter isn’t afraid to let Isbell and 400 Unit lead guitarist Sadler Vaden loose, as the solo in “Magic” is a nice antithesis to the more serene guitar lines that close out the first track on the album, “Ground Don’t Want Me.”
At the heart of this album, however, is Ritter’s songwriting prowess. “All Some Kind of Dream” has been described as one of the more political tracks on the album, as it discusses the refugee/immigrant situation that’s driven news headlines, especially within the last few years. But Ritter, much like the best of his songwriting peers, doesn’t hammer you with his own beliefs, nor does he blatantly attack any sort of direct opposition. Instead, Ritter appeals to our emotions, questioning and commenting on the injustice he’s seen around him and juxtaposing it to the good he’s seen in better times. On other songs, such as “Losing Battles” and “A New Man,” Ritter looks inward, and contemplates how one can strive to better themselves despite whatever vices may come our way.
While Ritter is often backed by his own Royal City Band, it’s clear that the addition of Isbell and the 400 Unit give this record a bit more grit than his past works. It’s exciting to see two powerhouses in the Americana realm work together on a project like this, and we may see other collaborations of this degree soon–earlier this month, new supergroup The Highwomen made their live debut at Loretta Lynn’s Birthday Celebration Concert, and an album is supposedly in the works. These team ups are also a bit reminiscent of when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backed Johnny Cash for his Unchained album, or (you guessed it) when those country “outlaws” first formed the Highwaymen, but we can only guess what may come next. Be sure to order Ritter’s latest and catch him on tour here. https://www.joshritter.com/