On his last release, 2013’s The Beast in Its Tracks, Josh Ritter was reeling from a recent divorce and all the conflicting emotions that went with it. But on his new album, Sermon on the Rocks, we find the Idaho-born singer-songwriter in a very different frame of mind. While The Beast in Its Tracks was an introspective work, “Sermon on the Rocks,” finds Ritter looking outward, crafting story songs about small town life that are laced with religious themes. As with his previous albums Ritter delves into heady subject matter, gracing his songs with vivid imagery and poetic lyrics. What is different on this, his eighth studio album, is a loose quality that we haven’t heard in Ritter’s music before.
Produced by Ritter and Trina Shoemaker (Emmylou Harris, Queens of the Stone Age), and featuring Ritter’s Royal City Band, the 12-song album was recorded over a two week period at The Parlor Recording studio in New Orleans. While most musicians who record in the Crescent City usually soak up the musical styles native to it, Ritter seems more influenced by its soul. Many of these songs capture the city’s sense of fun and spirit of creativity while also reveling in it gothic and mysterious underbelly.
Ritter said his goal was to create an album that was “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” and a song like “Young Moses,” with its shimmering tambourine and bluesy guitar interlude, just may fit that description. Sam Kassir’s pulsating keyboard drives “Lighthouse Fire,” a song that also features some distorted electric guitar provided by Kaufman, while “Lighthouse Fire” doesn’t sound like a Josh Ritter song at all – but you get that feeling that is exactly what he intended. While that song has a rock edge, Ritter lends a heavy dose of country to the upbeat “Cumberland” and to the disc closer, the slow twang-y “My Man on a Horse (Is Here).”
Sermon on the Rocks’ a danceable tune called “Getting Ready to Get Down,” is the story of a young girl whose parents and pastor are worried that she may be headed toward a life of sin, their solution being whisking her off to “a little bible college in Missouri.” Ritter sing-speaks humorous lines like “Jesus hates your high school dances” at such a rapid fire pace it as it as if he is free associating the words. The anthemic “Homecoming” looks back on the excitement of young love, but includes lines “When the oracle spoke to me/She was like a roadside song, (don’t go away now)/Do unto other as you would have them do/Even if in turn they do you wrong, (hey now)” that reflect a deeper meaning.
Some other highlights are “Henrietta, Indiana,” a tale of sin and salvation that explores how dire circumstances led a family down the wrong path (the song’s narrator is determined not to follow suit but knows he has “the devil in his eye”) and “Seeing Me ‘Round,” where a victim of a brutal murder repeatedly reminds his killer “you’ll be seein’ me around.” It could be a threat, warning the killer he will never be free of this person, or given Ritter’s preoccupation with religion on this album, perhaps a Christ-like figure who will return to life: it’s a beautiful, but rather eerie song.
Sermon on the Rocks is not as folk based as The Beast in its Tracks, in fact it even rocks at times – but it is an unpredictable, adventurous, funny, weird, and ultimately wonderful listen from one of our finest songwriters working today.