JOSH RITTER has been a solo artist for more than 15 years, but not until his seventh studio album, 2013's The Beast in Its Tracks, did Ritter sound so unaccompanied, so alone. Chronicling his recent divorce from singer Dawn Landes, The Beast in Its Tracks was sparse and largely unadorned, offering the most nakedly personal collection Ritter had ever recorded. But in art, as in life, after the wounds have been licked and healed, what emerges is often stronger, more full of vitality and grace, than what came before.
Sermon on the Rocks, Ritter's eighth album, is not only a return to his dynamic, spirited, and confident form, it's one of his strongest collections yet. It is the sound of someone who has found joy again in life and love and wants to preach it from the mountaintop.
"It felt cathartic, in far more of a way than I think Beast in Its Tracks ever did," Ritter says on the phone from Brooklyn. "Beast in Its Tracks felt like a kind of a dissection, and this one felt just like running down a mountain. It felt really terrific."
To record the album, Ritter brought his Royal City Band to New Orleans, along with Grammy-winning producer/engineer Trina Shoemaker, who co-produced. Sermon on the Rocks, which Ritter describes, perhaps facetiously, as "messianic oracular honky-tonk," has a slicker and more percussive sound than its predecessors, though it retains Ritter's playfulness and wordplay, as well as his ability to shift musical gears from track to track. In Sermon on the Rocks' 12 songs, Ritter handles post-punk ("Birds of the Meadow"), jazz noir ("Seeing Me 'Round"), and bouncy Paul Simon-style folk-pop ("Young Moses" and "Cumberland"). On the album's first single, the dance-floor burner "Getting Ready to Get Down," a young girl is sent away to Bible college by her concerned parents, only to come home more fortified in her licentious lifestyle. "Give your love freely to whoever that you please/Don't let nobody tell you 'bout who you oughta be," Ritter sings/preaches. "And when you get damned in the popular opinion/It's just another damn of the damns you're not giving."
Ritter has always incorporated Judeo-Christian themes into his writing, but its influence is even more prevalent on Sermon on the Rocks. Born 39 years ago in Moscow, Idaho, and raised Lutheran, Ritter doesn't consider himself religious now, but that's not to say he doesn't have his own beliefs.
"I believe in my friends," he says. "I believe in whiskey, and playing music, and long drives. I believe in so many things; if there's something I don't believe in, it's not as big a deal as the things I do believe in. To believe in your family, and my daughter, those things are so much more important to me."
He and his current partner, the writer Haley Tanner, have a three-year-old, Beatrix Wendylove. Ritter and the band have been bringing Beatrix along with them on tour, introducing her to the sights and sounds of a musician's itinerant lifestyle. "She's having a blast," Ritter says, with a laugh. "Nothing blows her mind like going on the road."
For having not so long ago been in the depths of despair, and broadcasting that despair publicly, Ritter now sounds as though he's found a normal, happy life. You can hear the smile in his voice. As for his plans after our interview, they couldn't be any more domestic.
"I'm going to get a haircut," he says, cheerfully. "Then I'm going to pick up my kid from school."