Last Friday, Josh Ritter released his latest project, Sermon on the Rocks, an album sure to top many “Best Of 2015” lists.
The album is aptly named: It does seem to be a sermon of sorts, and one gets the impression that Ritter would be just as comfortable behind a pulpit as he is behind a guitar. Though, as the title suggests — referencing the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus espoused the beatitudes — Ritter’s sermon challenges the authority of religion and simultaneously comforts those who may feel uncomfortable with such a sentiment.
“One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about,” Ritter says, “is trying to reclaim the basic principles of the Golden Rule for us as human beings, not in a religious context, but giving [humans] credit. We don’t have to be moved in a high spiritual sense to be good to each other.”
Biblical imagery abounds throughout Ritter’s catalog and he comes by it honestly.
“My family on both sides are firebrand Lutherans,” he explains, “so I’ve absorbed all those biblical stories throughout my years. But I look at the Bible as a comprehensive list of the way people treat each other. You can find that in all the books [of the Bible].”
Call it sermonizing, singing or both, Ritter delivers the best songs of his career with Sermon on the Rocks. There are dark, apocalyptic themes like the opening track, “Birds of the Meadow,” which comes off as a warning of impending doom, be it figurative or literal.
“I think all of us must have some sense that something out there is happening,” Ritter says, “but that doesn’t mean that it all has to be bad. One of the great things we have are people that bring us to attention and have [things] to say that make people uncomfortable.” He continues, “I don’t think that religion has any monopoly on prophecy. I do think of [“Birds in the Meadow”] as being delivered by a narrator who is divinely moved.”
There are playful moments as well, such as the single “Getting Ready to Get Down,” which tells the story of a young girl, disillusioned with her parents’ brand of salvation, who is forced to attend a Bible college in Missouri (it doesn’t turn out quite the way her parents expect). The song also inspired a line dance choreographed by a fellow Idahoan. A video of the dance is featured on Ritter’s website and is certainly worth checking out, if not learning.
The track order of Sermon on the Rocks serves the album almost as well as the songwriting. “Seeing Me ’Round,” the fifth track on the 12-song album, is a slow, droning murder ballad that breaks from the standard singer-songwriter focus and stands out as somewhat of an intermission.
The musical influences on the album are noticeable (Ritter cites Patsy Cline in particular), but the singer takes great care to maintain his own sense of creativity.
“Sometimes through emulation you find your own voice.”