Josh Ritter, "Fever Breaks" (Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers)
Josh Ritter's "Fever Breaks" is a work of stacked marvels, the result of an auspicious collaboration with Jason Isbell — who also produced — and his band, the 400 Unit.
In places raw, chilling and emphatic, while sensitive and compassionate in others, the 10 songs cover murder, love and politics while ruminating on the wonders and burdens of our existence and its expiry date.
Opener "Ground Don't Want Me" is a brisk-paced story of murder and a frustrated search for rest, if not redemption. It is followed by "Old Black Magic," where piles of guitars help illustrate the blinding, confused environment — "And I can't see the lighthouse/And the lighthouse can't scream."
An unrelenting acoustic guitar underscores the intensity of "On the Water," which urges its target to make their long-distance relationship an intimate one, while the thirsting "I Still Love You (Now and Then)" recalls an old flame who is far from extinguished in his heart.
Protest songs have benefited from the age of social media — which has expanded their reach — while also having to overcome short attention spans and sensory overload. So "All Some Kind of Dream" shrewdly wraps its political message in a graceful, acoustic arrangement, calling for compassion and appealing to the best in us in "darker days than any others I've seen."
Horrifying in its description of a bureaucratic dystopia, "The Torch Committee" is a nightmare song that feels all too possible, while "Losing Battles" kicks off like The Grays' "Very Best Years" but quickly reveals its Neil Young & Crazy Horse fierceness.
There have been plenty of highlights in Ritter's nearly 20-year recording career but it's the intensity of the music and imagery that makes "Fever Breaks" an especially engaging outing.