Few contemporary folk artists balance a reverence for that genre’s traditional forms with an ear for pop hooks as well as Josh Ritter. Perhaps what’s most surprising about the arc of Ritter’s career, then, is that he has remained a relatively unheralded artist even as the sprawling tent of Americana has unfurled over the last decade. Ritter’s latest, Fever Breaks, could reverse that trend, in that it finds the singer-songwriter produced by Americana stalwart Jason Isbell, and backed by Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit. As a bid for the greater commercial success that the quality of his work has long deserved, Fever Breaks offers plenty of potential points-of-entry for listeners who are already fans of acts like Isbell, Brandi Carlile, or Anderson East. “Old Black Magic” is easily the heftiest and most propulsive single of Ritter’s career, showcasing the raspier elements of his voice that he typically avoids while embracing the clever turns-of-phrase that he’s best known for. AAA radio is currently in a state of flux, in terms of its core identity, so it’s encouraging that “Old Black Magic” has managed to score some airplay alongside acts like Vampire Weekend and Elle King, who had previously been tagged for the modern rock format.
Isbell’s production choices rarely deviate from his own Dave Cobb aesthetic, though the album’s overall sound is far less polished than were Something More Than Free or The Nashville Sound. Amanda Shires, in particular, is given ample room to contribute fiddle sections that enhance Ritter’s songs. And those songs are as sharply written, and keenly observed, as any in Ritter’s catalogue. Like any true folkie, Ritter isn’t afraid of overtly political material: “All Some Kind of Dream” is easily the best song that has yet been penned about the current policy of placing migrant children into concentration camps, while “Torch Committee” is both a withering condemnation and a wiseass satire of the politics of division. Isbell’s role as producer may make Fever Breaks sound more widely accessible, but it’s the quality of Ritter’s songwriting that is, as always, the selling point.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 3