In the artist notes for The Beast In Its Tracks, Josh Ritter wastes no time establishing the premise of his sixth album: “My marriage ended on November 1, 2010. It was a cold, blustery morning in Calgary, Alberta, and I was on tour. I hung up the phone and looked around me.” But while the impact of his divorce certainly hovers over The Beast In Its Tracks — the longing and regret coursing through the whispery acoustic opener “Third Arm” is breathtaking — the record smartly frames the breakup through the lens of optimism, not bitterness.
Of course, it helps that Ritter’s creative catharsis also involved a new lady. “These days, I’m feeling better about the man that I am,” he sings on “Hopeful,” a ’50s-era soul-blues number burnished by torchy organ. “There’s some things I can change, and others I can’t/ I met someone new now I know I deserve.” The keyboard-swirled “A Certain Light” explores falling in love and erasing past unhappiness, while Ritter forgives both his former flame and himself on “Joy To You Baby.” Even the upbeat folk stomp “New Lover,” on which Ritter admits to still feeling “haunted” by his ex, wishes her well: “I’ve got a new lover now; I hope you’ve got a lover too.”
The Beast In Its Tracks sounds as intimate as its soul-searching lyrics, courtesy of spare, folk-inspired arrangements dominated by honeyed acoustic guitar. (On several songs, especially “Heart’s Ease,” Ritter even sounds quite a bit like James Taylor.) The stark tones and textures leave plenty of space for small sonic gestures from producer Sam Kassirer and the rest of Ritter’s Royal City Band: brief swipes of pedal steel or organ, blurry electric guitar, fading harmonies, muted drums. Still, Ritter’s unfussy wordplay and conspiratorial voice remain at the forefront, and deservedly so: The elegance with which he dissects his emotional transition elevates The Beast In Its Tracks beyond its tumultuous origins.