In the first 45 seconds of “To the Dogs or Whoever,” Josh Ritter sings 162 words.
It’s an expressive flurry that’s wholly out of step with most folk rock— Josh counts the relaxed John Prine as one of his primary influences, but if anything, “To the Dogs or Whoever” reminds me more of a literate version of the free-associative nerd-spitting in Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week.”
It reminds me, too, of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” another dense and freewheeling eruption of imagery, and you can pore over any Josh Ritter song with the same analytical eye. There’s less sense of frustration in that dissection, though, as you can sense a proper organizing structure, even if keeping up makes your head spin. In the space of three minutes, this song touches on Biblical tales from Jonah to Jesus, warriors from George Patton to Joan of Arc, and legends of bravado from Casey at the bat to daredevils pitching themselves over Niagara Falls, with all of it serving the tangled narrative of the singer’s pursuit of an abstract her.
It’s dizzying, and that’s not even to mention that this song is a stone-cold banger. I’ve seen Josh in concert so many times I’ve lost count (and he’s the type of performer who conveys such connection to his audience that it makes you want to call him by first name), and the band always plays this one with a hurtling recklessness that makes you think the house might literally collapse as players abandon their usual posts to rush to the drum kit and bash wildly on the cymbals.
Over the course of his career so far, Josh has assembled a singular vision of the American ur-narrative, a sprawling canon of imagery that includes silent film, the occult, water towers and Wurlitzers, the Mississippi steamboat trade, early 20th century Egyptomania, and, running through it all, the traumatic legacy of American military interventionism. That’s more ambition than most artists bother with in a lifetime, but across nine albums that have come along at a steady clip for the past two decades, Josh has always made it look easy. And he’s done it all before even reaching middle age, so with any luck, we’re only just beginning to learn the story of the world according to Josh Ritter.
(Song recommendation by Ethan Warren)