Song of the decade: Josh Ritter's Thin Blue Flame
There are a zillion posts and articles out there expounding on the best this and that of the decade, and personally I don’t give two wits about most of them. But I do feel it’s necessary to offer my two cents on Song of the Decade. At first I was leaning toward Bruce Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins” because of its connection to Sept. 11, 2001, which I believe set the tone for the entire decade. The words, which start off decrying a ravaged city, ends up imploring people to rise up. The Boss sang it on national TV during the telethon to help the victims of 9/11 and its meaning struck a nerve even though the song, actually written in 2000, wasn’t penned with the terrorist attacks in mind.
But a second song, by Josh Ritter, called “Thin Blue Flame” – from his album “The Animal Years” released in 2006 – takes those same sentiments and unleashes emotions so deep it even surpasses Springsteen’s song. Ritter alternately spits out horrific evil in the world and also its beauty, as if he can’t figure out which is more powerful.
In my review of the album in Modern Acoustic (Issue No. 8, Jan. 2006), I wrote this about “Thin Blue Flame”: “It’s a massive collection of lyrical images, each one you hear for a split second before the next one comes along. The song seems to see-saw between political darkness – Borders soft with refugees/Streets a’swimming with amputees/It’s a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/It’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart – and dreamy hopefulness – The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts/They were coming together they pulling apart/And/angels everywhere were in my midst/In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed. All the while the music builds to a dirge-like crescendo and then dissipates to quiet gentleness – solo electric guitar then squalling guitar, bass, piano – and back again. The song clocks in at an unheard of singer-songwriter 9 minutes and 38 seconds, ending in one last crescendo, then to feedback fading to oblivion. It leaves the listener breathless, trying to figure out just what hit them.”
And that was just after a few listens. Hundreds of listens and years later, the words – all 372 of them – are still chilling. Questions about religion, politics, God, beauty, heaven and hell. Who are we as human beings, and what can we believe in? All thrown up in the air after 9/11, and with a president who seeked revenge over understanding.
All the while the music is peaceful then chaotic, then peaceful and chaotic again – it’s a rollercoaster ride of emotion. And in the end, Josh singing “Only a full house gonna have a prayer,” telling us family and togetherness makes us whole. In the end, he’s shouting it over the full-on instrumental dirge of guitar, piano, bass and drums.
I can’t think of another song that hits you in the gut and makes you think at the same time. Listen and download the song HERE.
The complete lyrics to Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Flame” I became a thin blue flame Polished on a mountain range And over hills and fields I flew Wrapped up in a royal blue I flew over Royal City last night A bullfighter on the horns of a new moon’s light Caesar’s ghost I saw the war-time tides The prince of Denmark’s father’s still and quiet And the whole world was looking to get drowned Trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds I looked over curtains and it was then that I knew Only a full house gonna make it through
I became a thin blue wire That held the world above the fire And so it was I saw behind Heaven’s just a thin blue line If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons He bent down and made the world in seven days And ever since he’s been a’walking away Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes Where neither seraphim or raindrops go I see an old man wandering the halls alone Only a full house gonna make a home
I became a thin blue stream The smoke between asleep and dreams And in that clear blue undertow I saw Royal City far below Borders soft with refugees Streets a’swimming with amputees It’s a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart It’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart Days are nights and the nights are long Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine Now the wolves are howling at our door Singing bout vengeance like it’s the joy of the Lord Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round They’re guilty when killed and they’re killed where they’re found If what’s loosed on earth will be loosed up on high It’s a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees Back in the peacetime he caught roses on the stage Now he twists indecision takes bourbon for rage Lead pellets peppering aluminum Halcyon, laudanum and Opium Sings kiss thee hardy this poisoned cup His winding sheet is busy winding up In darkness he looks for the light that has died But you need faith for the same reasons that it’s so hard to find And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck And like good tragedy that’s what we expect At night I make plans for a city laid down Like the hips of a girl on the spring covered ground Spirals and capitals like the twist of a script Streets named for heroes that could almost exist The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem To float like the smoke from a lithium dream Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares The young women walking in the portals of prayer And the future glass buildings and the past an address And the weddings in pollen and the wine bottomless And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right The suffering verbs put to sleep in the night The future descending like a bright chandelier And the world just beginning and the guests in good cheer In Royal City I fell into a trance Oh it’s hell to believe there ain’t a hell of a chance
I woke beneath a clear blue sky The sun a shout the breeze a sigh My old hometown and the streets I knew Were wrapped up in a royal blue I heard my friends laughing out across the fields The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay Cicadas electric in the heat of the day A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land And the lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts They were coming together they pulling apart And angels everywhere were in my midst In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed I wondered what it was I’d been looking for up above Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air Only a full house gonna have a prayer