Josh Ritter is a folk singer with roots in Idaho who refuses to settle into one distinct style or sound. Listen to his discography; it’s as aurally diverse as it is wholly captivating. He often elicits comparison to Bob Dylan; but now, eight albums later, he is no longer Dylanesque. He is simply Ritteresque— his music (and one novel) so characteristically replete with biblical imagery, his songwriting so thoroughly literary that, to borrow his own words, it feels like scripture is in his bones.
Two years after the release of his heart-wrenching breakup album, The Beast in its Tracks (2013), Josh Ritter is back with his most upbeat album to date. In Sermon on the Rocks, Ritter sets out to explore some of the more subtle spiritual themes from his previous records in a direct and often playful manner. “The men of the country club / The ladies of the ‘xilliary / Talkin ‘bout love / Like its apple pie and liberty,” he belts out at breakneck speed in “Getting Ready to Get Down”— a song (so uproariously funny that it will surely make even the most staunch fundamentalist crack a smile) about a young girl who, after being sent off to Bible school in order to save her soul, returns to her hometown more deeply entrenched in her hedonism.For the Christian, Ritter’s “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” convicts in a manner reminiscent of the biblical Nathan’s confrontation of David.
While the levity with which Ritter often approaches these topics will no doubt offend some Christian listeners to the point that they attempt to correct (or condemn) his theology, such concerns miss Ritter’s larger criticism of American Christianity, which, far too often, is more American than it is Christian. Speaking of his motives for writing the album, Ritter says, “[w]hat was really driving me…was this disappointment in some of the ways that the Bible and the religious language of the Bible are being used in such two-faced ways.” In essence, then, Ritter’s Sermon on the Rocks is a biblically-infused album that offers a searing critique of deep-fried, cultural evangelical Christianity, and spreads its infectious sense of wonder and delight in the beauty of the world.
The album’s title is revealing; it not only shows off some of Ritter’s clever wordplay, but also sets up the Sermon on the Mount as a unifying motif. And while the most famous sermon ever preached does indeed make several appearances throughout the Sermon on the Rocks, the opening track, “Birds of the Meadow,” subverts the listener’s expectations; it is a dark, brooding apocalyptic-themed song. Ritter sings in a much deeper register than usual and thus imbues the song with a sense of heaviness and dread as the foreboding riffs of the electric guitar form the backbone. The song begins: “I didn’t come to ask you how you’re doing these days / Didn’t come to roll no stones away, no / I come to tell you that the end is nigh / I come to prophesy.” In reality, “Birds of the Meadow” is more than a surface-level meditation on the End of Days; it is a commentary on our cultural obsession with the apocalypse more so than with the subject itself.
Ritter, perhaps unknowingly, has correctly identified a large number of evangelicals, who have been heavily influenced by the Left Behind franchise, as yearning for a “heebie jeebie man in ecstasy.” Ritter’s lyrics here are indicative of the discourse that populates popular evangelical discussion of the apocalypse: Christ is almost altogether absent; moreover, the refrain, “fire is coming,” aptly encapsulates the fetishistic fascination some display at the thought of their enemies’ destruction. Seen in this light, then, the album opener wonders how a group of people preoccupied with the political nation of Israel, the downfall of the Religious Right in ‘Murica, and the rapture of the church just before all hell is unleashed all square with Christ’s call in the aforementioned mountaintop sermon to love one’s enemies (Matt. 5:44).
“My Man on a Horse (is Here)”, the final song of Sermon on the Rocks, can likewise be read as an apocalyptic song, in which a lover waits for the arrival of their beloved: “Waiting, I’ve been waiting / For the day, the hour, the moment you’d appear / Now just look at you / My man on a horse is here.” But whereas the opening track boasts weightiness, the closer, featuring the intoxicatingly relaxed acoustic guitar strum, feels like the final song in a Western film where the hero has finally returned home. These two songs, then, form bookends for the album, and it is difficult not to see the latter as more distinctly harmonious with Christian eschatology—which is especially surprising given the lyrical hints that the speaker is heavily intoxicated. But perhaps this sort of irony—wherein the ostensibly Christian view of the apocalypse is bested by the lovelorn musings of a drunk— is part of Ritter’s point: those who claim to possess the truth are often inconsistent in their attempts to live in the light of the message they claim to have received. In between these two apocalyptic songs, however, Ritter provides us with a psalter-like celebration of this gloriously beautiful world that God has created, even as it mourns the evil that abounds.
“I believe in playing music, and being in love, and whiskey, and playing with my band and my daughter,” Ritter said in an interview at NPR. If Sermon on the Rocks is any indication, however, Ritter also believes in delighting in the beauty of the world. His songs are earthy, his imagery concrete. He sings of “backroads and boneyards” (“Where the Night Goes”), a place so beautiful you “wonder for awhile if it’s paradise or Cumberland” (“Cumberland”), and of “a sky so big / I can give my heart to her” (“A Sky so Big”). It is clear that Ritter is enthralled with nature and even speaks of it using religious language in “Lighthouse Fire”: “Gonna build you [a] cathedral / Out of nothing but the rafters / ‘Tween the stars, ’tween the stars.” And when Ritter sets his voice and pen to plumb the depths of depravity in “Henrietta, Indiana” and “Seeing me Around”—the former of which tells of the dissolution of a family after disaster strikes the local mill, and the latter of a man who dreams of revenge after he is left for dead at the hands of his enemies—he sings with the earnestness of the psalmist. More than anything else, it is his ability to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) that makes Ritter’s music such a delight to the ears and the heart, for I know it is a grace in which I am woefully lacking.
For the Christian, Sermon on the Rocks, which Ritter describes as “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” convicts in a manner reminiscent of the biblical Nathan’s confrontation of David. It tells stories that are about us even as we wish they weren’t and, at times, recognize them as deeply inharmonious with our professed faith. However, even Ritter’s accusatory “you are that man” (2 Sam. 12:7) is packaged in such catchy and joyful melodies, such thoughtful wordplay, that it is better received as “wounds from a friend” (Prov. 27:6). In the end, Ritter reminds us that sometimes we need to be wounded. Perhaps the church desperately needs a few more sermons on the rocks. Pour me another round, Josh.