There are directors whose bread and butter is prestige pictures, the kind of films which inevitably draw acclaim from the wispy suggestion of depth, presenting ornate surfaces that are largely filled with air. Music supports the same style of artist (most often singer-songwriters, for whatever reason), who offer suggestions of creativity and depth without actually presenting them, showing off a twinkling, NPR-ready aesthetic that's mostly commendable for the way it deviously toys with familiarity.
Josh Ritter's So Runs the World Away cements him in the swelled ranks of these types of artists, plying stiff-limbed songs that evoke a creaky, sepia antiqueness. Ritter traffics in a lot of theoretically interesting topics (Martian canals, 19th-century archaeology, sailing ships, train rides through the wilderness), but their handling feels less like genuine exploration than a hushed wonderment with scuffed knick-knacks pulled from a box.
This is unfortunate because Ritter, whose numerous songwriting accolades are trumpeted in the album's press release, is a more than capable lyricist. He's adept at invoking a kind of whispery mystique within his songs, but the overall presentation falls in line with in-vogue styles (recalling Paul Simon in more careful moments, Dylan when things get loud) while also straining for the faded colors of the distant past. The two styles merge corrosively in distressed tracks like "Rattling Locks," whose stomping, reverb-soaked vibe masks a mostly hollow center, cribbing an essential bit from St. Vincent's "The Strangers." All this grants the album the slightly enthralling aura of a taxidermist's gallery—the antique merging with the recently alive—and in these frozen, nearly stuffy compositions are murmury glints of the light that may have suffused them were Ritter not so concerned with playing it safe.
The conundrum in assessing a project like this is that there are the two sets of criteria by which it can be approached. The first is the fulfillment of the formula it attempts to emulate, in this case a kind of moody but detached wilderness lyricism, at home with nature but not down-home, smoky Americana crossed with the yellowing allure of old adventure stories. The second is the creation of an individual product, and though World Away scores points for style, it also inevitably appears a little dried out and musty. The peak of the album's mania for recycling is the borderline offensive "Folk Bloodbath," which combines Blind Willie McTell's "Delia" with the core story of the bristly standard "Stagger Lee," draining both of any semblance of vestigial danger, slathering on angelic female voices and shiny trumpets for a pretty whitewashed take that reads as blues for people too fragile for the blues.
Ritter is undoubtedly talented and World Away, despite the troubling tendencies it presents, is a breezily enjoyable album. The creaky structures he inhabits and the source material he chooses to pilfer are smart choices, good things that are highly redolent on their own. But the atmosphere of rough, old conceits scrubbed clean, with just enough dirt left to seem genuine, is ultimately a disquieting one. Like the aforementioned archeologist of the very pretty "The Curse" who falls in love with an unearthed mummy, Ritter stands out as a devoted classicist whose repurposing of buried objects feels tinged with lifelessness.