Healing from Heartbreak: A Review of Josh Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks

On March 5, 2013, the release date of his newest track album, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter posted a hand-written note on his website, part of which read: “The Beast In Its Tracks began in heartbreak, but (for me) it has come to stand for everything that happened after.”

With his seventh full-length album, Ritter shows why Paste Magazine named him one of top 100 living songwriters (a list that included some of Ritter’s influences like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen). The 36 year-old began writing for the album in early 2011, as his marriage with fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes began to waver. The Idaho native (who could be considered in many ways a modern-day Bob Dylan) pays homage to Dylan’s 1975 post-divorce album Blood on the Tracks by titling his most personal album yet The Beast in Its Tracks.

Ritter, who majored in the self-created “American History Through Narrative Folk Music” at Oberlin College, provokes nostalgia for all things Americana. While this album is his most autobiographical yet, Ritter sticks to his style which so often embodies American philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s mantra “Simplify, simplify.”

In “The Appleblossom Rag,” Ritter laments over his soft acoustic guitar, “Lord, I’m such a fool / For things that sing so sweet and sad / And are so goddamn cruel.”

On one of the album’s most revealing (and arguably the best) tracks, “Hopeful,” Ritter begins by describing the melancholy of unrequited love, bemoaning, “Supposedly it was a wise, wise man / Who said it’s better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all / How many times is truth that you took to be true / Just truth falling apart at the same speed as you / Until it all falls away at a million degrees / And you’re just a few pieces of falling debris.”

He continues in the second verse, “Who’d keep the whole world spinning when she went away? / She kept telling me ‘bout the good things I deserved / That I wanted somebody I’d mistaken for her.” Still, his ex was hopeful that he’ll be able to come “out of the dark clouds,” and “she says I’ll get better, she knows that I will.”

She was right; in the final verse, Ritter observes, “These days I’m feeling better about the man that I am / There’s thing I can’t change and there’s others I can / I’ve met someone new now I know I deserve / I’ve never met someone loves the world more than her / She’s been through her own share of hard times as well / And she’s learned to tear out the heaven from hell.”

Ritter continues this theme of an album rooted in the sorrow of divorce sprouting into what Mother Jones Magazine has called “the Cheeriest Breakup Album Ever.” Ritter told CBSNews.com that when he was in “a really, really rough time … one of the things that seemed to be familiar, or a refuge at the time was writing songs.” The healing isn’t limited to Ritter; The Beast in Its Tracks also provides a calm, peaceful refuge for listeners.

The overriding message of The Beast in Its Tracks is on full display in “Joy to You Baby.” Although “There is pain in whatever / We stumble upon,” Ritter is optimistic: “I guess it all adds up / To joy in the end / … Joy to the many / Joy to the few / Joy to you baby / Joy to me too tonight.”

Unfortunately, Josh Ritter won’t be visiting Texas anytime soon since he performed here earlier this month. Still, there’s no reason to miss out on the album, which offers his familiar folk sound that his listeners know and love, yet also utilizes a refreshing new personal angle that anyone can relate to – and anyone can enjoy. Fulfilling Friedrich Nietzsche’s cliché “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Ritter’s divorce has inspired the painfully touching, yet beautifully soothing thirteen song album, The Beast in Its Tracks.