Josh Ritter (photo by Laura Wilson, PR)
It could be easy to take a songwriter as accomplished and reliable as Josh Ritter for granted. Over the course of nine studio albums released over the past two decades, Ritter has consistently delivered the goods, making him one of the most respected songwriters in the Americana music landscape (and a frequent visitor to WFUV too). But Ritter's music also asks that listeners not be complacent in their expectations of his music, especially when it comes to his tenth album, Fever Breaks, or they just might miss the nuances of his latest work.
On Fever Breaks, Ritter resourcefully looks outside himself, not to awaken a dormant muse or force reinvention, but to find a different path to reach his end goal. Here, he chooses collaboration as a fresh element to activate his process. Add to that mix today’s turbulent political climate, which organically seeps into Ritter’s writing, and the exceptional Fever Breaks reflects the immediacy of this moment in America.
When the time came to begin thinking about his follow up to 2017’s Gathering, Ritter phoned his friend Jason Isbell and discussed the prospects of working together. An agreement was reached where Isbell would produce the album, while Isbell and his own band, the 400 Unit, would back Ritter.
From the first guitar strum of Ritter’s driving story-song “Ground Don’t Want Me” to the dark alley toughness permeating “Old Black Magic,” Isbell and the 400 Unit make their presence felt. Ritter’s proficiency with matters of the heart come through via “On The Water” and “I Still Love You (Now And Then).” However, it's powerful moments like “The Torch Committee” that give rise to Ritter’s social commentary. This opus is powered by the 400 Unit’s ominous accompaniment which, led by violinist Amanda Shires, rumbles like an impending storm about to roll in.
The immigration crisis is pointedly addressed in the country-leaning “All Some Kind Of Dream.” In it, Ritter plaintively reflects: “I saw my country in the hungry eyes/Of a million refugees … There was a time when we were them/Just as now they all are we/Was there an hour when we took them in/Or was it all some kind of dream?”
Another highlight on Fever Breaks is “Silverblade,” one of the two songs Ritter wrote for Joan Baez for her most recent album, Whistle Down The Wind. And in “A New Man,” he directs his attention, and some words of wisdom, to a particular individual whom Ritter refers to as “a man without a country or a friend.”
Fever Breaks was recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A. Finishing touches were added at Sound Emporium, also in Nashville. Ritter and Isbell play guitar (the latter also on backing vocals), Shires adds violin and backing vocals, and the band includes the 400 Unit’s keyboardist Derry Deborja, drummer Chad Gamble, bassist Jimbo Hart (also on ukulele), and guitarist Sadler Vaden.
Josh Ritter is at the top of his game on Fever Breaks, which is not a surprise to his longtime admirers. A superb album, it's the sound of great musician reinforcing his place as one of the significant songwriters of these times.