Josh Ritter understands things. He understands that we often love the wrong people. He understands the power that places can hold over us. He understands that songs are magical. He understands that stories need to be told.
Ritter knows how to tell a story. The opening line of "Kathleen" ("All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights") speaks volumes, not only about the subjects of his songs but also of his ability to compose words that make the world seem a little better than it really is. When Ritter sings about Kathleen and her paramours, I can feel the ache in a young man's heart for a girl who will never dream of him the way he dreams of her.
In "Snow Is Gone," Ritter sings, "I'm not sure if I'm singing for the love of it or for the love of you." If any single line summarizes Hello Starling, it is this one. Ritter needs to sing. He will sing about anything. If it seems mundane, he will dig into it until he finds its heart, and then he will sing of its heart. Not all of the lyrics are great, but every single song contains at least one line that deserves to be written on a notebook cover or whispered in deceitful darkness.
The songs are well-written, and each one has its own personality. A few veer dangerously close to blasé '70s folk rock, but Ritter and his band always recover. There are dozens of subtle instrumental touches that offer new discoveries even after repeated listens, but Ritter's words are the light that shines most brightly. He brings knowledge and empathy to each song, and he trusts his listeners. (In fact, he might even trust the listener a bit too much, because I know there's a lot here that I just don't understand. However, I'm looking forward to spending some time with Hello Starling so I can try to figure it out.)
The designers had the wisdom to devote the vast majority of the package to the words. One panel of the CD jacket is the album cover (a bland treatment of an almost-not-bland photo), one panel is credits, and the other panels offer a simple but effective rendering of Ritter's lyrics.
Listen if you like: Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan. But also listen if you don't like them; I don't particularly care for any of the four, and I really like Josh Ritter's music.
If it were food, it'd be: A sandwich, a pickle, and a cold glass of Coke, eaten at a table in an empty roadside diner after a long day's drive, and served by a waitress whose eyes hold a thousand fascinating stories that she's yearning to share.