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Review: Josh Ritter, 'Sermon On The Rocks'

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

On Josh Ritter's most recent album, 2013's The Beast In Its Tracks, the singer-songwriter dredged through the battered ruins of his own post-divorce psyche. As such, the record looked relentlessly inward — to forgiveness and spite, to recovery and despair — as Ritter labored to examine his failed relationship from every angle. The result was as acerbic ("New Lover") as it was generous of spirit ("Joy To You Baby"), but most of all, it felt personal, even diaristic.

For his eighth full-length album, Sermon On The Rocks, Ritter takes a turn in the opposite direction — outward, toward other perspectives entirely. As its title suggests, the album is Ritter's foray into what the singer himself calls "messianic oracular honky-tonk," often dispensed via a kind of traveling-preacher/snake-oil-salesman persona. Which means, in turn, that Sermon On The Rocks is lighter than usual on the sincere rumination that has marked many of its predecessors. "Birds Of The Meadow," which opens the record, isn't Ritter's first examination of the apocalypse, but it's surely his fiercest.

Fortunately, it's an approach that brings out some of Ritter's slipperiest, nimblest wordplay — "When you get damned in the popular opinion / It's just just another damn of the damns not given" — and a few genuine head-turners. Not many singers could pull off a whopper like, "If you wanna see a miracle, watch me get down," but when Ritter gets there near the end of "Getting Ready To Get Down," it lands like a grand punchline.

Josh Ritter recorded Sermon On The Rocks in New Orleans with the help of his Royal City Band, which does its part to keep the record as fiery and loose-limbed as the songs require. But the closest comparison here, particularly in "Cumberland," is actually Paul Simon, whose wise and wordy searching isn't easy to emulate. Fortunately, whether gazing heavenward or getting down, Ritter is up to the task.

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)