With each of his previous albums — Golden Age Of Radio, Hello Starling, The Animal Years, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away and Sermon on the Rocks — Josh Ritter hinted at an imminent breakthrough. Consequently, it may be too much to hope that his latest effort, Gathering, succeeds where the others have not. Still, if intrigue and ingenuity count for anything, that wider recognition may only be a mere matter of time.
Ritter isn’t your typical singer/songwriter, at least as far as his template is concerned. There are no moon/June offerings here, but rather plenty of aural surprises that entice instead. Opener “Shaker Love Song (Leah)” opens the album with the sound of a solemn dirge before leading into the spunky “Show Boat” and a declaration of defiance. “I’m a guy who never cries, I have to keep my reputation clean,” he sings, setting the stage for the unexpected entries that follow. From that point on, the tone and tempo seesaw with ricochet-like efficiency, from the rambunctious, double time pacing of “Friendamine” to the mellow and mournful “When Will I Be Changed,” which features a cameo by Bob Weir. The mix in mood continues to shift dramatically, from plaintive reflection to more upbeat entries, but through it all, Ritter maintains the sort of grace, dignity, confidence, and clarity that evokes tears in the case of a song like “Myrna Loy,” or set feet to dancing via the twitchy “Cry Softly.” In each case, Ritter elicits a visceral reaction, making his music the sort of sound that’s both provocative and pensive all at the same time.
Ultimately, Ritter proves a point, that is, that it takes more than a sweet melody to inspire a real gut reaction. With Gathering, Ritter offers his most impressive effort to date, and considering his past endeavors, that’s no small accomplishment indeed.