In interviews, Josh Ritter often talks about growing up in small-town Idaho in a religious household and church community. He always makes it clear, though, that that he no longer identifies himself as a religious person. And he most certainly does not claim to be a preacher.
Still, Ritter admits that biblical symbols and stories continue to captivate him and inform his lyrics. So the title of the record, Sermon on the Rocks, makes a clever, even fascinating kind of sense. “They’re beautiful in a chaotic way. They’re a language that we speak in, those symbols,” hesaid. “I can’t seem to stop writing about stuff in religious terms.” Ritter is such a skilled wordsmith and, at the age of 39, such a prolific singer songwriter, that he handles the most spiritually heavy symbols with fresh gusto and gracefulness.
Although Ritter is openly skeptical of the church as an institution and about Scripture as God’s truth, he does not seem to be simply out to skewer those who may hold tightly to a theological worldview. Instead, he creatively revels in the layers of Scriptural imagery and the varied, unpredictable experiences of losing or finding belief. “Getting Ready to Get Down,” for instance, is a rollicking, even danceable, track about a small-town girl whose parents send her off to a strict Bible college to mend her wayward ways, but she returns changed in ways they did not predict.
Other songs, true to the album’s title, pick up on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, respectfully probing how people live out statements like “Blessed be the poor” or “Your treasure is on high.”
At its core, Sermon on the Rocks is about honoring where you come from. It’s a process which, for Ritter, is clearly about his hometown nostalgia for the countryside: the back roads, porches, corn fields, and big skies. When his lyrics explore this theme of homecoming, the most basic biblical allusions shine in a unique, personal way. On “A Stone,” for example, he sings:
Love'll burn a hole
through your human doubts
and free your heart from the stone
free your heart from the stone.
And the stone may roll
but it'll search you out
no matter where you go
it'll find you.
Preacher or not, Ritter has proven himself capable of taking the complexity of Scripture and the questions of religious faith and shaping them into a collection of intriguing songs for singing along and pondering. (Pytheas Recordings)