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The Bright Side of the World's Annihilation

Josh Ritter has drawn surprisingly apt comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
Josh Ritter has drawn surprisingly apt comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Josh Ritter isn't the first singer-songwriter to draw comparisons to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, but he ranks among the few whose best songs actually justify them. Ritter's greatest attributes flow almost directly from each legend, whether it's a Dylan-esque gift for evocative poetry or a Springsteen-esque tendency to whittle massive world events down to the size of one man's battered psyche. Ritter doesn't hit such towering heights with regularity (who does?), but a masterful song like his 10-minute "Thin Blue Flame" isn't diminished by the loftiest of comparisons.

Ritter's audaciously titled fifth album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, takes a disarmingly ragged-edged turn from last year's calmly brooding The Animal Years: It often recasts the singer as a meat-and-potatoes rocker, a role that takes some getting used to. But it also spits out one of Ritter's best songs yet, in the form of the pre-apocalyptic love song "The Temptation of Adam."

Ritter isn't always obtuse in his imagery here, as he spells out "W-W-I-I-I" and evokes images of missile silos and top-secret fallout shelters. But he retains his gift for subtle, warmly evocative turns of phrase, as he woos a lover underground: "I never had to learn to love her / like I learned to love the bomb / She just came along and started to ignore me." As their captive courtship unfolds and he romanticizes "looking up into the dark like it's the night sky," Ritter quietly revels in the simplicity of the end times, acknowledging that his romance would crumble if it weren't unfolding in isolation. In the process, he learns that he doesn't so much mind the world's annihilation, provided he gets to hold someone when it happens.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)