The troubadour is back!
Josh Ritter is that most canny of songwriters, a cipher of unlimited roles. In Sermon on the Rocks, we are treated to Ritter as the snake-oil salesman, the traveling tent evangelist interested in damnation and some form of redemption—at a cost. Chord changes and tempo slowdowns trick the audience into buying the message, waiting on tenterhooks for what comes next. From the apocalyptical bombast of the opening salvo to the layered notes of “Homecoming,” Ritter is selling us his version of indulgences.
If the Animal Years and the Golden Age of Radio explored love and its (at times) eternal cost, Sermon on the Rocks breaks into a more grandiose idea of how we incorporate spirituality into our lives. Hints and notes of charged language rise up time and time again throughout the album, knitted throughout a grand canvas in which Ritter weaves lyrical poetry.
While hellfire and end-of-times imagery welcomes the listener into Ritter’s tent, we don’t stay on the path to righteousness. Rather, we succumb to questions of that engage human history—are the sins of the father visited on the sons (“Henrietta, Indiana”), do our elders necessarily know better (“Getting Ready to Get Down”), are there any truly safe harbors (“Homecoming”)…these are the themes Ritter has wrestled with his entire musical career. While previous albums featured a more personal exploration of these questions, Sermon entreats us—through Ritter’s individualized parables—to seek answers for all humanity.
As well, Ritter’s specific geographies are those in need of some salvation. Choosing those economically depressed places where revival seems so far from possible, and a trickster-troubadour selling a small piece of heaven seems a reasonable deal, is the backbone of the album. Echoing back to times “long ago,” Ritter is poised to nail the current nostalgia for something simpler—though the songwriter knows that this halcyon view obscures a realistic interpretation of the past. Rust belt towns search for meaning in the new America, and schooling meant to direct the student towards ‘purity’ are the domain of false promises—exactly what Ritter’s travelling salesman offers the listener.
Even “Seeing Me Round” fits this narrative—the ghost of Rasputin haunts a modern Russia obsessed with bygone glory days. It’s no mistake that the semi-mythical monk himself was no clean holy man. And is the paradise of “Cumberland” real, or simply an idea for those wanderers and seekers that Ritter has embodied throughout multiple albums?
As an “objective” review, this album ranks a little under the Animal Years and Golden Age—those remain some of the best songwriting since 2000—but it is surely his best since 2006, and sheds the anger (hopefully expunged) wound through the Beast in Its Tracks. A few tracks seem out of place, but Ritter’s musicality and strength of theme keep the album moving. If we are the parishioners under some humid canvas tent, awaiting a promised miracle we know to be false, Ritter is our charlatan—and we love him for it.