learning love songs

est. 2008


Josh Ritter


One of my favorite things I’ve always remembered about Josh Ritter was that he majored in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music” at Oberlin College. I learned this about him in high school and it stuck with me as one of the coolest things I’d ever heard, smacking of dedication and promise. History! Narratives! Folk Music! I love all these things, and I instantly loved Josh Ritter, who got away from me in recent years as my Americana/folk listening expanded to many other artists.

I rediscovered his catalog this weekend when the hook for “Still Beating” came into my head, a beautiful song about the nature of persistence, and from their his catalog sucked me back in. “Girl in the War” is one of my all-time favorite ballads, a song I’ve cried to and sung to in many capacities, while his later work on So Runs The World Away reminds me of more placid, pensive times. I think he’s one of the best songwriters of his generation, able to encapsulate a feeling and paint a scene with the same phrase, while building really complex, stunning instrumental parts around it.

Today, a day when history seemed to burst at the seams with unbelievable statements that could threaten our safety, it was an odd and beautiful coincidence to have “The Temptation of Adam” queued up on Spotify on my walk to work. It’s a morbid song, a tale of love found in some bunker safe from nuclear fallout, a song that I loved back when and somehow moves me even deeper today. It’s poetic and dark, the way Ritter paints the scene of the lovers in hiding, with crossword puzzles and cots and rations, with names carved into a warhead. And that part always appealed to me, in a literary and lyrical sense, but hearing it today moved something else me. Maybe I understand more about than I did back then, the kind of love where you’d risk everything to freeze the moment. The kind of love that seems to mean more than the very earth itself.

“I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
But as we waited for the Big One
I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

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’d misjudged me”

~The Temptation of Adam
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter


Listen to how perfect this song is:

“I got a girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne, 
They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain.” 
~Girl in the War
Josh Ritter, The Animal Years
(As performed with Emmylou Harris at SXSW2013)


Songs I Can’t Listen to Sometimes 

These are songs that, even though I love them, I just press “next.” I’m guessing you, reader, understand. You have those songs too. I challenge you to listen, purge, experience. Feels kind of refreshing.

 1)Now That You’re Gone The saddest of the sad on “Cold Roses,” in my humble opinion. It’s a simple, sweet melody, but it doesn’t take much for me after I hear this song to desperately crave a man with kind eyes and strong arms to hold me and never let me go, because the song heralds all the loneliness you could ever feel for one person in one night. It’s the love song for the one who left you, and I can’t handle that sometimes. Or anytime. I’ve been left too much, and done too much of my own leaving, to let Ryan Adams remind me of how sad I am about it all.

“Everything you ever touched is undisturbed and hangs out/Like crime scene evidence undisturbed in dust I don’t dare touch anything because it’s evidence of us/And it means everything/Well sort of/I’m alone and I’m dancin’, with you now/In your old room, in your old house/I’m alone and I’m dancin’, with you now, in your old room, but there’s nobody there”
~Now That You’re Gone
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Cold Roses

2)Hear You Me
I loved this song real hard in high school, then I lost someone I loved. I needed to believe in angels because I still need to believe she’s happy, somewhere, and I can’t hear this song because it makes me think of her too much. Then I think of all the other people I love, and how desperately I need them to know that before life takes them from me, too. In any way, gorgeous song, but I don’t listen to it anymore. Just easier not to.

“on sleepless roads the sleepless go may angels lead you in” 
 ~Hear You Me
Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American

3)Girl in the War
Beautiful song. Probably my favorite Josh Ritter song, hands down, even though I’ve come to embrace a lot of his catalog. Something about this song just breaks me, just makes me feel something that brings me back to a place I’ll never be again. So I don’t want to listen to it, because I miss that place, with its subways and rainy days, its romance and pavement and prowess.

“Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom/And the angels fly around in there, but we can’t see them/And I got a girl in the war, Paul I know that they can hear me yell/If they can’t find a way to help, they can go to Hell/If they can’t find a way to help her, they can go to Hell” 
~Girl in the War
Josh Ritter, The Animal Years

4)Baker, Baker
Simply a favorite. Incredible song, but I still press next, because it makes me want to cry. Or call people who aren’t in my life anymore. It makes me want to reach out for what isn’t there hold. It makes me crumble in ways I’m not always equipped to deal with when driving home from work or the grocery store or whatever. Tori is so soft, so sentimental in this song, it’s so contrasting to so much of what else she does, but it stills me in a frightening way.

“I guess you’ve heard he’s gone to LA/He says that behind my eyes I’m hiding and he tells me I pushed him away/That my heart been’s hard to find/Here, there must be something here/Here, there must be something here” 
~Baker Baker
Tori Amos, Under the Pink

I don’t even think I have a version of this on a hard drive anywhere. I just don’t listen to it anymore. Was it even that good? Listening to it now, I feel a little older, I feel a little beyond it, but it still makes me want to make out like a teenager. It still makes me want to reach out for someone, anyone, I feel like understands me, knows me, wants to know me and need me.

  “and if I hurt you then I’m sorry please don’t think that this was easy”
Something Corporate


Josh Ritter wins again, with “So Runs the World Away.” It’s an outstanding collection of songs, transporting you to a different time and place. I listened to it sitting alone in my car on a horrendously rainy day. It was a perfect fit. Songs like “The Curse,” “Rattling Locks,” and “Folk Bloodbath” prove that he’s got no shortage of inspiration both lyrically or instrumentally, because the songs are as realized and full as ever. It is extremely produced, with layers and layers of keys and auxillary and backup vocals and all kinds of things, which is not what one might expect from a tried and true folk artist who brings such simple songs like “Monster Ballads” and “Kathleen.” But while that might draw criticism from some listeners, I think it works, and Ritter has already proved he excels in this area of arranging (see: “Girl in the War”). Also, this could be a good album for people who aren’t familiar with Ritter to get into him, since there is a lot of variation on it.

In other news, I am once again without an iPod. And probably will be for a good two to three months, yay.


You’re not the fastest draw in town now
How many times you been shot down now?
Seems like everybody else could see the things you never did
But if you could yourself you’d probably never have made it through the things you did
With your heart still beating

~Still Beating
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter


If you like folk singer/songwriters….
Buy this.

Then listen to it on a pensive drive when it’s sort of gray and rainy, and it sounds really fucking good. “Thin Blue Flame” kind of blew my mind at first, it was like a cross between Death Cab and, i don’t know, a more literary Ryan Adams. And upon second listen, it was still pretty resonant. Good sign. Third, too.

But you have to be into this kind of sound to appreciate it, i think. His lyrics are powerful in their own right, and he does have some equally powerful moments. Beautiful songs, but simple. A song like “Idaho,” well, you just have to like folk music. I needed something new to dig my ear into in that genre, so I’m glad this full length came my way.

Also, Ritter majored in the self-created study of “American History Through Narrative Folk Music,” according to Wikipedia and thus he is my academic hero.

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