Roger Ebert wrote a while back about responding to the question film critics inevitably get asked: “What’s the greatest movie of all time?” He usually responds with the perfunctory nod to Citizen Kane, which he jokes is the “official answer.” But this time, when asking himself not which film is greatest but which he would like to see right now, he says Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Why that one? Seeing it many times in his life at many different ages, he saw something different in each viewing – something his younger selfs didn’t or couldn’t have appreciated. “Movies do not change, but their viewers do,” Ebert writes. “The movie has meant different things to me at different stages in my life, but has always meant something, and because it clearly did for Fellini too, I think I will always want to see it again. It won’t grow stale, because I haven’t finished changing.”

I thought about that recently when I had my fourth annual Animal Years Night, wherein I listen to Josh Ritter’s 2006 album for the one and only time all year. See, I went to a concert years ago where the headliner’s lead singer talked about loving an album so much he only listened to it once a year so it would stay special.  I’ve written before about why I like to keep some life moments sacred, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to create a holy moment for myself. I’m pretty rigid about this, too: I won’t listen to any song from The Animal Years until That Night. It makes me cherish every verse, every chorus, because I know I won’t hear it again for another year.

This all started four years ago when I was on winter break from school, back at my parents’ house and totally at ease. I sat inside looking out at the fresh coat of pristine snow falling in the backyard, illuminated by the full moon, and I listened to The Animal Years. (If you haven’t listened to it yet, you need to.) It was exquisite. The memory of that picturesque scene and the inner warmth I felt stuck with me.

Sighing just a little bit / Smiling just a little bit. — Monster Ballads

The next winter, I was a year older and back in the school grind when one night the snow started falling oh so beautifully and I thought, “This is a Josh Ritter kind of night.” I threw on my boots and jacket, grabbed by iPod, and ambled through the serene, snow-laden suburbs with The Animal Years in my ears. In between songs I could hear my feet crunch the fresh coat on the sidewalks as I ebbed and flowed through the golden light from the street lamps. I was content where I was in life, happy at school and hopeful for life after commencement.

For those who ain’t done packing yet / My clothes are packed and I want to go. — Idaho

After a summer of transition and a fall living abroad, I came back to the States unsure of where I would go next, what I would do, and who I would become. Living with some friends and working a dead-end job, I set out on my Animal Years Night in an aimless and discontented mood, worried about the future and trying to right all of the Big Questions in my head. But I was once again put at ease by the hard grace of the snow falling all around me and Ritter’s mellifluous voice telling me it would be all right.

We saw your old flames / And some were burning yet / It made us smile to see / Just how well tended each was kept. — In The Dark

Now, this last winter, being in a great place in life with blessings anew and exciting possibilities ahead of me, I waited and waited for the perfect night when the snow was in a slow fall and the neighborhood was quiet to listen to The Animal Years once again and let it wash me clean. And once again it was a bewitching 50-minute spell that was mine and mine alone.

I’ve changed a lot throughout my last four Animal sessions. Each time I was a different man with new questions and new assurances, but the same album in my ear. It’s reassuring to know that you have something in this fickle and fluctuating world that will never, ever change and will walk with you through life. Whether it’s a favorite album, a work of art, or a treasured book, like DiCaprio’s totem in Inception that special thing grounds us when we’re adrift and tells us something new every time we ask. Next winter, I’ll be a different man from who I am now with new questions and new assurances, but The Animal Years will meet me in that moment, the same it’s always been, to tell me it’ll be all right.

And there’s so much where we ain’t been yet / So swing up on this little horse / The only thing we’ll hit is sunset. — Good Man

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