Every Josh Ritter album has been rooted in American folk traditions, but none have stitched together quite as many musical threads as Gathering. The album includes shaker hymns and campfire songs, spirituals and railroad rambles, country-western tunes and delicate waltzes, all combined into a deep and colorful tapestry backed by the Royal City Band. But while Gathering is rooted in the past, it never sounds staid. Ritter is mindful of folk forms but never beholden to them, using traditional structures as jumping-off points for some of his richest writing and scruffiest performances to date.
The latter is most obvious in the album’s back half, including “Cry Softly,” which opens with a squall of feedback before setting off on a folk-rock ramble, and “Oh Lord, Pt. 3,” which moves at a warped country gallop accompanied by a full-on gospel chorus. Ritter hasn’t sounded this lively or jocular since 2007’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, though there’s a key tonal difference between the two albums. The former set basked in the glow of new love, while Gathering, just four years removed from Ritter’s heavy-hearted divorce album The Beast in Its Tracks, possesses an undercurrent of loss beneath its seemingly more upbeat mood. These are songs of experience, weathered yet determined to be optimistic.
“Showboat” best captures Gathering’s loose but chastened spirit. The song finds Ritter riding a soulful groove, complete with congas and a horn section, telling the story of a man set on maintain his stoic veneer, desperately praying for rain just so he can shed a tear without anyone noticing. He’s had his heart broken but wants his former lover to think he’s doing fine. Ritter’s lyrics are funny, but they also have bite—a sense of pain that’s all too lived-in and real.
If “Showboat” suggests there’s a wounded soul behind the album’s swagger, “Cry Softly” makes it clear that this is also an album about moving on and letting go. “It’s good to see you back here, but I’m on to greener pastures/And if you’re gonna cry, cry softly,” Ritter sings. Here Ritter seems less interested in lament than he is in writing a righteous kiss-off.
Not everything is quite so uproarious; Ritter’s rambling mode is always welcome, but he also shines in the quiet moments. “Train Go By” and “Feels Like Lightning” are both nimble acoustic ballads, suggesting night skies and wide-open spaces. “Dreams,” a half-spoken fever dream, full of surrealist imagery and an exploratory, jazz-inflected backing, may be the most adventurous song on Gathering, while the hopeful “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight” offers a smart variation on the old cliché about dawn coming after midnight: “I thought the sun was going down/ but the sun was coming up.”
“When Will I Be Changed” anchors the album’s eclecticism and provides it with its emotional center. The song, written and performed with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, is a spiritual in the vein of Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me”—a longing for redemption, a plea for change. It’s the album’s most introspective moment, the one where Ritter looks deeper than love and loss to the core of his own tattered humanity, hoping to see it transformed. The track’s church organ and religious language root it in the gospel tradition, but once again, Ritter’s not interested in folk music for its own sake; tradition is the canvas on which he displays his own vision, deeply personal and emotionally direct.
The same could be said of Gathering as a whole. It’s as diverse as anything Ritter’s done yet also focused in its exploration of joy, sorrow, and their strange intermingling. It’s proof enough that Ritter is one of the true keepers of the American folk lineage—a proud traditionalist and an utter original.