Josh Ritter hails from Moscow, Idaho, a part of the country once home to Russian and French settlers, Civil War refugees, and several Indian tribes; in an interview with the online publication Three Monkeys, Ritter described it as a "melting pot in the middle of really nowhere." With his third album, Ritter seems to have taken his homeland to heart. With his clear, emotionally compelling voice, Ritter has made pleasant music in the past, but he's always hewed too close to classic folksinger mode to stand in the overabundant current crop of male singer-songwriters. Here, he seems ready to throw in more ingredients and let them melt, acknowledging that pop songs can be the folk music of the modern age, letting Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine producer Brian Deck flesh out the sound, and finding added confidence to go with his new ambition. When people talk about breakthrough albums, this is what they mean.

Ritter demands attention from the stately first track, "Girl In The War," which blurs a conversation between Peter and Paul with a lament for a girlfriend in the military. He finds no easy answers for why lovers should be kept apart on earth or in heaven, but that only makes sense on an album largely about asking difficult questions. A thumping drumbeat drives home the confusion of "Wolves," in which a lover remembers a happier time but can't quite connect his unhappiness to his own restlessness. God gets tangled up with a hair-metal tape somewhere in the desert landscape of "Monster Ballads," and the jaunty "Lillian, Egypt" recasts a love-gone-wrong as a silent-movie melodrama.

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Ritter keeps his focus on the nearly 10-minute "Thin Blue Flame," a phantasmagoria filled with biblical imagery, references to vengeance, and, for the second time on the album, Laurel & Hardy. It eventually gives way to the album-closing "Here At The Right Time," as the confusion of what's come before winds down into an almost prayer-like moment. "Tell me I got here at the right time," Ritter asks. He'll never find the answer, of course, but with The Animal Years, he's made an album that sounds simultaneously deeply personal and in tune with confusing times.