What I woke up with in my head this morning

Josh Ritter The Tempation of Adam

A song can, and will, do anything if you let it. Songs make you feel what the music and lyrics together are saying. Songs make us ecstatic, excited, helpless, torn. Songs make us want to get fucked up, cry, laugh, speak. But at their core, songs are stories; narratives that can say a little or a lot about whatever little sliver of life they are talking about. Every song says something.

Josh Ritter writes the type of songs that you listen to from the pressure of a friend, and at first glance, just sort of seem “eh.” And then you take a second listen because you hear so much about this guy and someone throws the word “genius” into the mix and you think, “okay, what’s going on here?” So you listen to a few more songs and maybe download an album or a buy a few singles  and after a few more listens, you’re still not that convinced that anything else besides some catchy choruses and folky finger picking is going on in the songs. Then, maybe one night, you’re lying in bed or you’re in the shower or driving home at 2am from some bar and you start singing this song. But the thing is, you don’t really know where this song came from, but these lyrics are ringing in your mind and you realize they’re the most beautiful words you’re ever heard. So you put on Josh Ritter and realize that these words are his. If you’re anything like me, the next step will be to listen to anything and everything this man has ever written and change your mind as to how songs are supposed to be written or sung or played.

You know the type of guy Josh Ritter is. You know that Ritter was that guy growing up in some town in Idaho playing four nights a week at the local bar and sitting in corners of house parties strumming his guitar to whomever would listen. You know he knows he’s a lyrical genius. And he likes that. I saw him live for the second time a few nights ago in Boston. As he stands onstage with his sunburst acoustic, smiling through brilliant little phrases and to the audience and his bandmates, you get the feeling he knows what he’s doing. A particular moment comes to mind. About midway through the set, Ritter’s band backed offstage, leaving Ritter and his Epiphone standing in a little blue spotlight fingerpicking a D chord. Then he starts singing “The Temptation of Adam,” quick fingerpicking under hushed vocals, telling the story of a man and a woman and an atom bomb in a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter. The place is silent; waiting barely breathing, beers and whiskeys in hand, feet shuffling on cold ground, watching Ritter swaying left and write on stage. And we keep listening. Ritter sings:

“Oh Marie, if you would stay we could stick pins in the map / and dream of all the places we thought love would be found / but I would only need one pin to know where my love’s at / in a top secret location three hundred feet under the ground / and we could hold each other close, and stay up every night / looking up into the dark like its the night sky / We’ll pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead / and carve our name in hearts into the warhead”

But he doesn’t exactly finish that last line because he starts to smile when he gets to the word “hearts,” gives a little laugh, and then clears his throat before finishing the song. I don’t know exactly why he smiles at that particular moment. It might be because he knows the power of his lyrics or that line specifically. Maybe he’s thinking about who he wrote that song about or who it reminds him of. Or maybe he smiles because he knows he just made about a thousand people’s neck hair stand on end.

I remember an interview I watched with Ritter talking about his new book (he’s also a novelist). He said that he wrote a novel because he doesn’t believe that songs allow the type of time and space to develop a character or a story. Mr. Ritter, I would have to disagree with you on that point.

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