Brilliant Songs #45: Josh Ritter’s “The Temptation of Adam”

I knew virtually nothing about Josh Ritter when I walked into the wonderfully named “Haw River Ballroom” earlier this month in the just-as-wonderfullly named city of Saxapahaw (2021 population: 1,671). I’d bought the tickets on a lark, because the blurb sounded interesting and I had a vague memory that Ritter is one of those artists with an intense following who had stayed under my radar over the decades for all the usual reasons (time, proximity, basic inattention) but who probably merited a listen.

It required maybe three or four guitar pickings and a few words out of his mouth on concert night for Mary and I to turn to each other with an unspoken, pursued-lip, “Whoa!”

And then it was off to the proverbial races for a two-hour concert set that ranks as one of a handful of “Best Concert Ever” nominees in my personal honor roll. (Its three off-the-top-of-my-head companions: Bruce Springsteen at the Oakland Coliseum, Al Green at the Luther Burbank Center, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Green Center.)

His metaphors most always tumble forth many-sided, keeping the listener’s mind churning in a perhaps futile attempt to cohere a final ‘meaning’ in a song, an imagination, and a world where ‘final’ is a self-canceling word.

Many songs shine in a Ritteresque way through the 47-year-old singer-songwriter’s oeuvre that now spans 28 years and 11 albums. He produced his self-titled debut record at the campus radio station while still a student at the notably progressive, art-and-activism-focused Oberlin College in Ohio, where he abandoned his initial neuroscience major in favor of an independent study of “American History Through Narrative Folk Music.”

He has since become a notable figure in that narrative arc with a body of work marked by exquisite lyrical nuance, with layers upon layers of depth unpeeling themselves, draped in an always appealing, sometimes plaintive, sometimes rocking musicality.

“The Temptation of Adam,” from Ritter’s 2007 album “The Historical Conquest of Josh Ritter,” is very much from the plaintive side of his sensibility.


In concert, Haw River Ballroom


Rtter is a fine storyteller who’s never afraid to wander the wide-open fields of metaphor. One can only imagine those fields littered with near misses in early song drafts, all of them more than worth the abundant riches yielded in works like “The Temptation of Adam.”

Allusions to the biblical Adam of the song title, the Cold War and nuclear armageddon intertwine with a nascent relationship that takes flight with he and his mate’s shared passion for the languages wrought by words (crossword puzzles, mostly) and music (the song’s narrator wins her initially desultory attention by singing to her).

The 10 stanzas unwind in sequence, sans any refrain. The image of him and Marie crawling through a missile door (some Garden of Eden that is!) in the first stanza concludes in the tenth with the narrator gazing “at that great big red button” poised to detonate the nuclear bomb, feeling “tempted.”

In between those poles, we’re let in on their intense burgeoning love, as if they’re the only two people on earth, even before he contemplates the button that could end everything for everyone.

But wait a minute.

That button: Is it about a literal bomb that would destroy the world, or is it perhaps metaphorical, the narrator contemplating not the end of the world but of this couple’s world together, him finally “going nuclear” in despair of this relationship?

(Yes, I suspect both.)

And is that despair perhaps only in response to her own, his finger tempted toward the button as a preemptive strike, just as nations might do in fear of other nations?

And what about Adam, who met the ultimate temptation and made a fateful decision that changed the fate of humankind? (Though not, as many Christian commentaries have it, in a bad way, and not without plentiful encouragement from his mate….)

I am myself tempted to conclude the narrator is (or at least identifies with) that very Adam, the first and possibly last man, depending on what he decides regarding the button.

A good deal of commentary on the song focuses on the armageddon theme, that Ritter wrote it as a classic exploration of Love and Fear in the Nuclear Age. Fair enough; there’s plentiful imagery to support that interpretive lens, and I wouldn’t argue against it.

Ritter himself has told interviewers he initially wrote the song as a statement of protest against what he felt at the time was the follies of the George W. Bush administration. (Which are now referred to in both his and my circles as “the good old days”).

But Ritter’s peculiar, no-doubt hard-won genius is that one lens rarely suffices. His metaphors most always tumble forth many-sided, keeping the listener’s (and his own) mind churning in a perhaps futile attempt to cohere a final “meaning” in a song, an imagination, and a world where “final” is a self-canceling word.

Come on, give it a listen now, then double dose with the lyrics below that, and I suspect you’ll hear what I mean. Then I’ll see you on the other side for a few final musings.



“If this was the Cold War, we could keep each other warm,”
I said on the first occasion that I met Marie
We were crawling through the hatch that was the missile silo door
And I don’t think that she really thought that much of me

I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
But as we waited for the “Big One,” I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside
“What five letters spell ‘apocalypse?'” she asked me
I won her over singing, “W-W-I-I-I”
And we smiled and we both knew that she’d misjudged me

Oh, Marie, it was so easy to fall in love with you
It felt almost like a home of sorts or something
And you would keep the warhead missile silo good as new
And I watched you with my thumb above the button

Then one night you found me in my Army-issue cot
And you told me of your flash of inspiration
You said fusion was the broken heart that’s lonely’s only thought
And all night long you drove me wild with your equations

Oh, Marie, do you remember all the time we used to take
Making love and then ransack the rations?
I think about you leaving now and the avalanche cascades
And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions

Oh, Marie, if you would stay then we could stick pins in the map
Of all the places where you thought that love would be found
But I would only need one pin to show where my love’s at
In a top-secret location 300 feet under the ground

Oh, we could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead

Oh, Marie, there’s something tells me things just won’t work out above
That our love would live a half-life on the surface
So at night while you are sleeping, I hold you closer just because
As our time grows short, I get a little nervous

Oh, I think about the “Big One,” W-W-I-I-I
Would we ever really care the world had ended?
You could hold me here forever like you’re holding me tonight
I think about that great big button and I’m tempted


So much to attend to there. Marie isn’t much impressed in the beginning, but Adam’s genius response to decipher the five-lettered “WWIII” as the crossword answer for “armageddon” snaps her to attention. (First line in the Book of John: “In the beginning was the Word…)

Thawed, she yields to sudden inspiration, in her altogether lovely bit of wordplay, “fusion (is) the broken heart that’s lonely’s only thought.”

Little wonder that and more drove him wild with her additional “equations.”

Ritter hews to his central nuclear armageddon metaphors effortlessly, the couple “ransacking their rations” after making love, then thoughts about her leaving him causing an “avalanche,” his “eyes washed away in chain reactions” (of the nuclear kind, blinded to the world).

We get more evidence of the relationship theme proceeding at least on a parallel track with armageddon in Adam’s observation that Marie could “stick pins” all over a map of her happy places where love abides, whereas he sees his only “in a top-secret location 300 feet under the ground.” (With her—and her alone—we can assume.)

Leading to his admission: “Oh, Marie, there’s something tells me things just won’t work out above/That our love would live a half-life on the surface.”

It brings to mind a common movie and literature theme of strangers falling in love/lust amidst the white heat of war, desperate for a last intense engorging of all that life can provide. Spared catastrophe and blinking their way back into the humdrum world, can they ever go back to making the obligatory rounds of mother-in-law visits and scheduling the plumber to come fix the leaky faucet without feeling adrift?

That “half-life on the surface” may not be enough for our Adam, who appears both electrified with love and haunted by images of annihilation. What would he say if he manages to survive both and returns to face life and its no-nonsense question, “What now?”

Big fun here, too!


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Small Ritter photo top of page by Thomas Hawk, San Francisco, California
Ritter in concert by Andrew Hidas
French nuclear test by James Vaughan, Kent, Ohio

10 comments to Brilliant Songs #45: Josh Ritter’s “The Temptation of Adam”

  • Deanna  says:

    I had never heard of him but he is amazing. I keep trying to compare him to someone, but can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe Bob Dylan in the way they both tell stories. But Josh sings better!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Right you are, Deanna—but then Dylan is just…Dylan!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Utilizing allusions to the Cold War and Genesis to illustrate a romantic relationship is unusual to say the least. Ritter opens his song describing their initial encounter as crawling through the hatch of a missile silo. I might have passed on a second date. The nine subsequent stanzas are heavily seasoned with references to a nuclear holocaust: they’re often very effective. For instance, since most romances are transitory, they do have a half-life. Musically, stripping “The Temptation of Adam” of a refrain, is central to its effectiveness as a narrative. It’s also uncommon. Refrains in an A-A-B-A melodic structure better suit singing in the shower or crooning in a car. As I look back on my listening history, the first non-refrain song I recall hearing (and loving) was Marty Robbins’s “El Paso”. Since both you and Deanna referenced some guy named Dylan, I’d like to throw in my two cents. While many of his songs do tell a story, I can’t think of a single one that’s void of refrains. By the way, I love Dylan’s voice!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’ve long harbored the suspicion that while refrains can be effective—kind of like taking a breath to relieve the tension of a song and/or to emphasize a catchy melodic or lyrical hook—they’re also used because writing great music & lyrics is really hard work and songwriters sometimes just don’t have enough in the tank to carry a song all the way through without a refrain. They may land on a lovely core idea but don’t have the chops or inspiration to much develop it, so they refrain half the song and call it a day. BTW, it occurred to me writing this that I really had no idea of the difference between a “chorus” and a “refrain,” and since chorus is often used to signify a group singing choral works, I figured “refrain” would more unambiguously indicate what I meant. But of course, I had to verify that, so I inquired of Siri/Google about what if any difference there is, and got sent to several websites that purported to “explain” the difference, and I’m here to tell you I still don’t understand it! Now I think I’ll go recruit some of my songwriter friends to explain it to me in plain English instead of Musicalese (if that’s at all possible).

      Two more BTWs: I also “like” Dylan’s voice, in the “that’s just Dylan way,” but you gotta admit he’s a lot like liquor or brussel sprouts: an acquired taste! AND: You’d best look again at Dylan songs absent a refrain. “Tangled Up in Blue,” for starters, and a heap more here:

      One more verification of Dylan being among the all-time greats!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Also, Robert, and how could I forget this refrain-free selection, since I wrote about it here, though it was forever ago in 2016: “Boots of Spanish Leather”…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I stand corrected about Dylan songs not having a refrain. I’ll blame it on my age. Incidentally, I clicked on the above link. It was interesting and thanks. Someone in your mentioned “Visions of Johanna” as an example. It is, and it isn’t. Every third stanza begins with “And the visions of Johanna…” and from there it changes to a different lyric ending. What Dylan does here is unique. While the lyrics vary somewhat, he treats them musically as a refrain. It’s a great example of his genius to weave lyrics and music into a subtle, complex song.

  • Mary  says:

    The refrainless song I remember is “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry (though the Tallahatchie bridge is a repeating, resonating footnote).

    Josh Ritter : what a performance! What music, lyrics! And connection with the audience, most of whom were standing on the old floor of that former textile mill for the better part of two hours, never showing even a bit of fatigue.

    Somehow we missed the opportunity to contribute, but evidently ticket holders were asked before the show if they wanted to pen a message/love note/words of appreciation that might be chosen to be read aloud, reminiscent of old Prairie Home Companion interludes. Somewhere in the middle of the show Ritter came out with about 10 of these sweet messages and read them to the assembled company, met by clapping and cheers and a few misty eyes, drawing everyone in, to the collective joy of creating connection through music and words. Beautiful.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Mary, reviewing the “Billie Joe” lyrics here, and it’s so interesting that “Choctaw Ridge” are the last two words in the penultimate line of each stanza, and “Tallahatchie Bridge” are the last two words of every final line in each stanza, but otherwise, each of those lines is different from stanza to stanza. That makes it sort of a feint toward a refrain but certainly not a refrain as we have come to know it with an entire verse repeated multiple times. Meaning it deserves its own term, so until someone comes up with something better, I’ll adopt Robert’s “Is & Isn’t” label for these partial-refrainy songs!

      Also: thanks for adding the concert anecdotes. Ritter seems to have figured out all the different parts that go into putting on a fine and memorable show.

  • Robby Miller  says:

    Well, my goodness. I can’t begin to equal the sophisticated musicology that’s already been shared so I’ll just add my 3-chords in a minor key comments. I’ve written, or co-written, more than a hundred songs (most of them shit, but an occasional decent one) and I rely heavily on repetition – whether in a chorus, a refrain, or the first part of every line in every verse. I like to think it keeps the listener grounded. After all, a song is rarely a novel (Springsteen, aside) and only occasionally a poem. Better said, it’s just a song. It comes and it goes. (I might walk around with a book of poetry, but never a book of song lyrics. (McCartney’s “The Lyrics”, aside.) If the songwriter is lucky, part of the the song, or a feeling generated by it, might hang around in the head or heart of the listener and, if really lucky, move them in some way, even – thanks to the best of the best singer/songwriters – alter the course of one’s life.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s a fine defense of the chorus/refrain element, Robby, and I have to admit that although I am dazzled by long story songs that never repeat, you’re quite correct in noting the power of repetition, at least musically/emotionally if not creatively. This reminded me of what a happy, participatory buzz ensues when singer-songwriters do that up-and-out-with-the-microphone thing inviting the audience to sing along, which is ALWAYS on a chorus/refrain. Maybe a decade or so ago, with our friend Kevin in Golden Gate Park, Boz Skaggs doing “Lido” with the refrain about knocking the trees back to Ocean Beach, the roar just increasing with every “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!!!” Memorable!

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