Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Kathleen – Josh Ritter


Written and performed by Josh Ritter. You can listen to the song here and buy the studio version on iTunes here, though I recommend this live version.  You can find many live versions of this song on YouTube.

“All the other girls here are stars – you are the Northern Lights”

As long as poets have written their verses, they’ve sought metaphors to convey the beauty and spirit of the objects of their affection. So few succeed, yet here comes Josh Ritter out of Moscow, Idaho with an opening line to make you swoon. That he sticks to the metaphor speaks to the depth and conviction of his craft:

They try to shine in through your curtains – you’re too close and too bright.
They try and they try but everything that they do
Is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.

I’ve witnessed the Northern Lights but once on a mad midnight drive across upstate New York, stunned by the hallucinatory flares painting the sky, neither night, nor day, another worldly brilliance that had us dancing and bowing. No other light in the night can compare and when Josh Ritter sings the verse with sung with driving exuberance, we understand much about Kathleen and even more about the singer.

Set at a party, he’s a boy in the shadows watching the girl he adores and “the boys in your line.” She’s royalty accustomed to the boys waiting on her, yet our watcher imagines he knows her secret:

You act like you’re hip to their tricks and you’re strong,
But a virgin Wurlitzer heart never once had a song.

Is it his heart waiting for a song or hers or does he imagine they share a kinship of a heart waiting to explode, a heart waiting for the song it’s fated to perform?

It’s late and he fantasizes about her needing a ride home; he may not be the chosen one, he may not stand a chance, but if only he could:

I know you are waiting and I know that it is not for me,
But I’m here and I’m ready and I saved you the passenger seat.
I won’t be your last dance, just your last good night.
Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.
I’ll be the one to drive you back home, Kathleen.

He’s timid and courteous in this near medieval romance, so pure of heart that he’s willing to forgo the dance and the kiss, just to be “your last good night.” Again, he sees her heart plagued by a malaise he feels, “every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.”

The courtly imagery continues into the last verse as the singer pictures the scene when he gets her home:

So crawl up your trellis and quietly back into your room,
And I’ll coast down the length of your drive by the light of the moon.

You might recognize that trellis. We’ve heard the stories of magical princesses with mythical hair and romantic leads chasing them the trellis.

If only he can drive her home, you can imagine him as the earnest suitor promising to do nothing more than give her a ride home, but he believes given the time he can forge a bond:

And the next time we meet-a new kind of hello,
Both our hearts have a secret only both of us know,
’bout the night that I drove you back home Kathleen.

The song rides atop a swirling organ and hard strummed acoustic guitars. The singing captures that yearning which is both painful and delicious, a yearning for a love he cannot have, except just maybe. And he doesn’t ask much, just a ride home cause that’s all it will take. It’s a song of hope and faith.

“Kathleen” comes from Josh Ritter’s third album, Hello Starling, which brought more attention and deservingly so. He’s one of the better performers working today. Committed to the craft of his songwriting and full of ambition all the while his voice and stage performance continues to grow in confidence. If you’re new to Josh Ritter, you might want to check out Hello Starling and The Animal Years, a concept album released in 2006, which takes his songwriting to another level, standing as one of the best albums of the past decade. You can also check out one of his live albums, which do a good job of capturing his enthusiastic performances.

You can find out more by checking out Josh Ritter’s website. You can read an interview with Ritter in Q Magazine here. The New York Times ran a large profile last May; you can read it here and catch an PBS video here. No Depression offers a number of articles and review on Josh Ritter here.


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