It is challenging when an artist you love zigs or zags. You love them because of the work they have already done, so anything that goes in a different direction feels unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable. Of course, the job of the artist is not to make us comfortable. It is, rather, to challenge us, and to help us look at life through different prisms.
Spectral Lines, Josh Ritter’s 11th album, does just that. It is unlike any of his other records. Gone (at least for now) are the story songs and dense wordplay, as well as the exuberance that defines much of his work (and especially his concerts). In their place is a powerful but quiet, highly-atmospheric set of songs; a set focused on life’s most difficult questions. As Ritter has said, “I wanted to express a certain thing with the kind of song that lifts the way a sentence lifts with a question mark at the end. And the question is, ‘Is there more out there?’”
Spectral Lines is infused with melancholia. Some of that relates to the 2021 death of Ritter’s mother, whom he credits with teaching him “that wonder is a reflex, and that reflex will take you to some amazing places, and will make your life richer and more beautiful.” His loss also feeds an emotional vulnerability that calls to mind Jonathan Richman or Elliot Smith. In “Horse No Rider,” a haunting song about appaloosa horses on the Camas Prairie, Ritter sings
Has my hunger ever been more plain/
has my need ever been more naked/
It’s too late in the evening to be ashamed/
if you’re offering I’ll take it
That plain hunger and naked need are the keys to Spectral Lines. It is very much a snapshot of a moment in time.
The songs on the album fit beautifully together. As Ritter explains, “I took out all the longer, wordy stories, songs that are very important to me, but they just weren’t right for the record. Once I got rid of those, I found that the songs that really stuck were the ones that were shorter and a little smokier and more atmospheric. I didn’t always feel like there had to be like a steady beat. What I wanted was some kind of trip down a river, just to be carried along by this thing. Any songs that weren’t adding to that were getting in the way. “
The album credits include five guitar players, but there is not much guitar to be heard! Most of the album is driven by Sam Kassirer’s keyboards. Kassierer also produced Spectral Lines, creating a captivating. ethereal atmosphere. It feels a bit like Daniel Lanois, but it also feels fresh and distinctive.
In addition to Ritter (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar) and Kassirer (piano, organ, mellotron, synthesizers, drums), Spectral Lines also features Jocie Adams (clarinet, synthesizers, background vocals), Matt Douglas (woodwinds), Zachariah Hickman (upright bass, electric bass), Rich Hinman (electric guitar, pedal steel), Shane Leonard (drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass), Kevin O’Connell (drums, percussion, electric bass, electric guitar) and Dietrich Strause (acoustic guitar, electric guitar).
Ritter takes his role as an artist seriously, although he seems not to take himself too seriously. He is a national best-selling author, having released two novels to date: 2011’s Bright’s Passage and 2021’s wonderful The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All. Recently, he has also been sharing some of his paintings on Facebook (and, presumably, elsewhere).
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Josh Ritter Brings his “Messianic, Oracular Honky-Tonk” To the Rams Head