On Hello Starling, Josh Ritter's third release, there was "Wings," a fanciful but sophisticated tale that played out like a sci-fi movie commissioned by PBS. Last year's The Animal Years featured "Thin Blue Flame," more than nine minutes of positively mesmerizing destruction and redemption kept airborne by an indelible riff that dodges bursts of chaotic noise. If "Wings" was a two-hour film, "Thin Blue Flame" was a mini-series.
On Ritter's latest release, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, "The Temptation of Adam" claims Most Ambitious cut. It's a first-person account of a romantic relationship born in a missile silo. Ritter worries it won't survive outside its place of origin. "Temptation" is full of Ritter's trademark nimble wordplay, and it's smart without showing off. Most importantly, it's quietly poignant, with this early scene setting the tone: "We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside/ 'What five letters spell apocalypse?' she asked me/ I won her over saying, W.W.I.I.I.'/ She smiled and we both knew that she misjudged me."
So, obviously, when Ritter looks back on those last three records, he acknowledges the boldness of those three cinematic tracks. He probably thinks 'Wow, I really went out there on those' or 'They really felt good' after he's written them, right?
"Not a bit," says Ritter. "I've never considered one song to be more adventurous than any other. You either write what you have to write, or you write nothing of any worth at all. I'm proud of every song on my records, and it always feels really good!"
In spite of my faulty assumption, Ritter was still happy to answer a half-dozen questions about "The Temptation of Adam."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Love blossoming in a missile silo is not something that one encounters every day. When and how did the idea first come to you?
JOSH RITTER: The idea came to me all at once, both the situation and its consequences. Very rarely does such a concise idea come to me, and I was lucky to have the time to devote to it at the moment it came.
Carving initials in a warhead sounds like an image that might have preceded the song and then cried out to have a song written around it. When did that hit you?
That image, like the rest of the images in the song, came along as the song unfolded. Each part of the plot leads to the next. It was something lovers in love would do if given enough time in the presence of a thermonuclear device.
A lot has been written about the change in direction that The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter represents for you, as in its overall popiness and upbeat musical approach. "The Temptation of Adam" is acoustic and low-key, and it brings about a change in? Was there ever a chance that the song would be more upbeat, or was it born to be that way?
"Adam" was always written as a low-key song. Popiness can kill a story just as fast as it can create a mood. I didn't want anything to get in the way of the story, and the melody came to me as a quiet little love song, so I trusted my instincts and went with it.
The bit about W.W.I.I.I. being a five-letter word for apocalypse is absolutely brilliant. I don't really have a question built around that line; I just wanted to acknowledge it.
Thank you! I've been getting into crosswords for a while now. I'm not that great at them, but when I started thinking about spending time in a missile silo, a crossword puzzle seemed like an activity of just about the right speed. W.W.I.I.I. just followed from that.
With the references to fusion and equations and chain reactions ("You said that fusion was the broken heart that's lonely's only thought"), I wonder where math and science fall as far as your skills are concerned?
I'm no mathematician or scientist, but I have an appreciation for the limits of my own ignorance, and I'm fairly curious about a lot of things. I always liked scientists. Science is like music; it's a socially constructed enterprise that fulfills a need in society.
I've started thinking of "The Temptation of Adam" as the best song ever written about an office romance. I've started thinking of other jobs/scenes that would make interesting love songs, including love between two tollbooth workers. Have any ideas?
Exact change, tickets, uniforms, the lowered arm. Her name would be Trisha and his would be Jim, and both would steal glances at each other through the little windows between semi-trucks.
Josh Ritter plays Cat's Cradle on Monday, Nov. 5, with Eric Bachmann and Maria Taylor opening. Music starts at 8:30. Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.