Critics are already calling The Animal Years one of the best albums of 2006. And rightfully so. The latest release from Moscow, Idaho, native Josh Ritter is his best yet — a masterpiece of sophisticated lyricism, catchy melodies and beautiful noise. It’s garnered him feature stories in magazines like No Depression and American Songwriter (the latter put him on the cover) and helped land him in Paste magazine’s recent list of the 100 greatest living songwriters.
We caught up with Ritter via e-mail while he was in Europe and asked him about wolves, Laurel and Hardy and his beloved home state.
INLANDER: Critics are going nuts about The Animal Years and suggesting — without being able to explain it — that something about your style and your lyrical approach changed between Hello Starling and this record. So what was it?
RITTER: Who knows? I believe that every record that is thoughtfully approached will be different because the individual changes with time. So, time probably had something to do with it. But I wanted to talk about far different subjects on this record, and to use a different kind of instrumentation as well, so I did start out with the idea that the record would be different.
[Producer] Brian Deck helped the band and me to more fully flesh out our ideas. He pushed those ideas in new directions, and he brought some completely wild-card notions to the table. When you look for a producer, you look for someone who is going to surprise you.
Explain the album’s title. And what’s with all the wolves that pop up in the lyrics?
I believe that humans are different from angels, animals or forces of nature in that we have the ability to be truly confused about our lives and our place alongside each other. There are a great many people who are asking us to forsake that confusion, but I believe that to do that will be to forsake our humanity.
Right now, this is an enormous sub-war going on in the U.S. I personally don’t want to become just another wolf running around the place with a pack of other wolves. Similarly, I’d rather not be some angel who is either all good or all bad and just a messenger or an executioner. When we give up human confusion, when we devalue it as a gift, we turn into animals or simple mouthpieces.
Old movies seem to play a big role in this album. “Lillian Egypt” hearkens back to silent films, and Laurel and Hardy appear in two different songs. Where does this come from?
Silent movie actors in particular have some kind of strange kinship with characters in songs. While a silent movie actress has to flail about and make actions stand for words and previous personal history, a character in a song has only a few real lines or details about them which can flesh out their lives and desires. I think the two types of characters are related in their minimalism.
Nine and a half minutes of one image toppling onto another, “Thin Blue Flame” will no doubt land on many “Best Songs of 2006” lists. Tell me about the process of writing this song. Where did you get all those images?
This would be impossible to explain, and I think it would take away from the song to talk about it too specifically. I can say it took a year and a half to write, and occasionally I felt like I was on a wild goose chase — chasing an idea more than anything, chasing some way of explaining the world right now to myself in a way that would make me feel better about my place in it.
There are a lot of references and characters that weave throughout the record — Laurel and Hardy, Egyptian imagery, references to Illinois, the wolves. Was this a conscious effort, or did these things just seep in?
I wanted each song to refer to another, or several others, throughout the record. It was like the thread that binds the pages together. I don’t like concept records because I feel it usually strains the songs to fit next to each other, but I do believe the songs on a record should relate to one another in some way. I’d say most of these references seeped in rather than any kind of purposeful placement. However, many of these things were influences on the record, more than guest appearances. Mark Twain’s references to Cairo, Illinois, led me to look at the area of southern Illinois called “Little Egypt,” for example. You go where your interests follow you.
This album’s hitting pretty big. Why not move to L.A. or New York at this point? Why stay in Moscow?
Success comes along with a lot of distractions — distractions from writing, especially. If I were to move to L.A. or New York at this point, the distractions would be overwhelming and the songs would suffer.
Why do you think the national press makes such a big deal of your Idaho origins?
I think it’s because Idaho is exotic. It really is! It’s a place that most people pass through and most people don’t even really know where it is. So it’s a bit of mystery place. Plus, I talk about it a lot because it means so much to me.