Josh Ritter’s encyclopedic knowledge of American folk music infuses every track on his new album Gathering, with a rich nostalgia that manages to sidestep every tempting fallback into cliche. A prolific songwriter with a wildly diverse discography under his belt, Ritter is at the top of his song-crafting game on this record.
Beginning with a beautiful, austere a capella folk intro, the album takes many twists and turns as it draws from every corner of Americana, from classic country to soulful gospel with even a gorgeous musical interlude (literally titled Interlude) comprised of gorgeous folk ballads arranged for wind and brass ensemble, evoking, like, the best college marching band you’ve ever heard playing Stephen Foster tunes. It’s a track that could easily be so cheesy, but in Ritter’s hands it’s deeply moving.
Ritter’s mastery lies in his ability to take the the most textbook country chord progression, fill it with simple, heartfelt lyrics, and avoid sounding hackneyed. He does this largely through his deft use of surprising instrumental arrangements: laying a funk bass line under a classic country tune like Showboat, slipping in dreamy synth and bowed upright bass on Train Go By, and layering in soulful keys under poignant acoustic guitar on When Will I Be Changed. A chugging country tune like Feels Like Lightening is elevated above honky twang by the folky sweetness of Ritter’s voice and a delicate touch of synth. Friendamine uses overdriving, gritty guitar to make country music sound cooler than ever. Full of vibrant energy, this is music that makes you want to run out and buy tickets to Ritter’s next live show.
Mid-album, to keep his audience ever on their toes, Ritter even evokes Leonard Cohen with a sprinkle of early 70’s experimental rock a la Patti Smith with the stunning track Dreams (my personal favorite.) The rambling stream-of-consciousness ballad is a rustic, spooky work of art.
Switching gears again, Ritter then swerves back to sweet, haunting folk on Myrna Loy before bringing us back full circle to Johnny Cash-esque country rock on Oh Lord, Pt. 3 before wrapping up with a pair of earnest, folk love-songs: Thunderbolt’s Goodbye and Strangers.
Gathering feels a bit like pieces from three separate albums, cut up and stitched together: one part avant-garde art-folk album, one part old-school rock-country throwback, and one part sentimental Americana pastiche. Somehow Ritter stitches it all together in a musical quilt of all the elements that best embody the American folk idiom.