The best thing about being a fan of Josh Ritter is watching him develop as an artist with each release. His career doesn’t have peaks and troughs so much as arcs: the rising and falling action of a great story. His records are similarly well paced, with each acting as its own artistic statement without ever seeming like a gimmick. Ritter is the rare artist who can adjust his style while always remaining recognisably himself. While much of the coverage of this latest release has focused on his collaboration with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, then, what’s really striking about ‘Fever Breaks‘ is just how of a piece it feels with Ritter’s previous work.
The record is notably warm throughout, with Isbell’s production bringing out the tones of each instrument without ever sacrificing the overall mix. From opening track ‘Ground Don’t Want Me’ on, The 400 Unit brings muscle and confidence to each and every arrangement. They pummel on ‘Old Black Magic’, strut on ‘Losing Battles’, and relax into easy grooves on ‘I Still Love You (Now and Then)’ and ‘On the Water’. While Ritter has always collaborated with good musicians, it’s hard not to be blown away by the tightness of the playing on this record.
There’s less honky-tonk exuberance than the best moments of 2015’s ‘Sermon On The Rocks‘, sure, and the slower tracks never quite achieve the end-of-the-night last-call sombreness Ritter conjures on the best moments of ‘Gathering‘ (2017).
But these criticisms are immaterial. Such moments would feel out of place on ‘Fever Breaks’. This record has its own dynamic shifts – indeed, it flows wonderfully. Ritter and the band settle into a warm groove after the bruising opening songs before upping the intensity again for the foreboding one-two punch of ‘The Torch Committee’ and ‘Silverblade’.
Though this means that the warmth of protest song ‘All Some Kind of Dream’ feels almost a little too relieving, it’s perhaps better for the flow of the album that we share some of the togetherness Ritter conjures in his eulogy for a better America. “We rose to fight for what we knew was right“, Ritter sings, drawing on the American myth he’s investigated throughout his career and since he put together his own undergraduate major on US History through narrative Folk music. “Or was it all some kind of dream?“.
There’s a lot to dig into on this album. Some moments are attention grabbing on first listen: Sadler Vaden’s guitar solo closes ‘Old Black Magic’ in style, while Amanda Shires’s fiddle wails out over the disturbing, paranoid ‘Torch Committee’. But more than this it’s the little lyrical touches that stick with you. References to the dead man’s hand and angels guarding the garden on ‘Ground Don’t Want Me’, for instance, or ‘Losing Battle’s’ admittance ‘it’s always been in my nature to be the beast’. As with all Ritter’s work, Fever Breaks invites interpretation, revealing new depths and textures on each listen.
I hesitated before rating this album. As a longtime fan of Ritter, I’m undoubtedly biased, and Fever Breaks isn’t exactly a game-changer. But neither of these points is a good enough reason to hold back from giving this album full marks. Ritter is at the point now where familiarity cannot hold him down. Song structures and chords may repeat, and you can pick up flashes of Dylan here and Cohen there. But this is all recognisably, uniquely Josh Ritter, and all the better for it.