The first thing that jumps out about Josh Ritter's new album, So Runs the World Away, is how unabashed his influences are. From song to song, he can seem like something of a gifted mimic, borrowing arrangements and phrasing from Paul Simon here ("Lark"), Leonard Cohen there ("Another New World"), Bruce Springsteen over there ("Lantern").
The less obvious but more impressive thing that sinks in after a few times through is what a good writer he is, in the crafting of words and metaphors and narratives. Ritter, who grew up in small-town Idaho as the son of neuroscientists, has always had a nice way with an image, steering away from cliché with a determined sense of literary ambition. The title of the new album itself is a Shakespeare quote (from Hamlet: "For some must watch, while some must sleep/So runs the world away").
Ritter has set his sights successively higher, from the mysteriously allegorical "Wings" on Hello Starling to the fevered epic "Thin Blue Flame" on The Animal Years to the sly missile-silo romance "The Temptation of Adam" on 2007's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. A handful of tracks on So Runs the World Away rank as his most assured yet, taking lyrical conceits to virtuosically imaginative lengths. But they didn't come easily—the album emerged from Ritter's first serious case of writer's block after nearly a decade of steady production.
"I felt burned out and washed up," he says in a telephone interview. "You get a high from writing, it's a really exciting thing. When you're writing well, it feels like you're kind of the champion of the world. I love the feeling of writing well."
After months of struggling to recapture that feeling, Ritter's breakthrough came when garbage trucks in his Brooklyn neighborhood clattered him out of bed in the middle of the night. "I woke up with the idea in my head of a mummy falling in love with an archaeologist, and the love affair that kind of comes out of it," he says. "The story was in my head, fully formed. The lyrics weren't there, but I knew what I wanted to have happen."
The result is "The Curse," a sad and darkly funny fable about the perils of all-consuming love. The details are arresting, invoking "the dried fig of his heart" and "a sandstorm of flashbulbs and rowdy reporters."
With his confidence regained, Ritter moved from inspiration to inspiration. "Folk Bloodbath" reworks Mississippi John Hurt's "Louis Collins" to bring together Hurt's murder-ballad protagonist with those of "Delia's Gone" and "Stack-a-Lee" in a triangle of love and death. "Another New World" is an Ancient Mariner-style voyage into a hallucinatory Arctic: "At last all around us was fastness/One vast glassy desert of arsenic white."
And then there's the ecstatic, pounding "Orbital," which spins science ("amber-waved electrons" in "planetary transits") and a sort of agnostic spirituality into what eventually reveals itself as a transcendental Valentine. "I got really into learning about gravity, which I thought was really interesting because how we describe gravity sounds a lot like how we describe love," Ritter says. "An unnamed force that attracts us or repels us, how it diminishes and how it increases, how it affects the way time works."
So Runs the World Away is Ritter's sixth album, and his first since his 1999 debut to be entirely self-released. After working with large and small labels (his last album was on Sony), he decided to go it alone.
"I have nothing against major labels, small, large, any labels," he says. "I find that whining about labels is about the most boring discussion in the music industry. People that do it are like people that talk about their old girlfriends. I felt like the last record was a good chance to see how a major label would go, and it went pretty good. But when it came time to do a new record, I decided I could do all that stuff just as good myself."
While he's on the road with his longtime band, he is also finishing up another writerly project: his first novel, scheduled to be published next year.
"It's a short novel, a couple hundred pages," he says. "I'm in the edits. Now the songwriter part of me is kicking in, and every single word is annoying or exciting."