Album Review: M. Ward Stirs Americana
When I turned 15, my mom gave me a record player.
To a surprisingly large number of people (parents, grandparents, a Boy Scout leader and my ex-girlfriend’s uncle) this news apparently also implied an automatic invitation to dump on me the equivalent of a musical garage sale.
I ended up with four dusty crates of old, warped vinyl which included: the complete discography of Barbara Streisand, three copies of the soundtrack to “Flashdance,” and a four-disc set of history’s greatest speeches that came highly recommended by my grandmother.
But when I finally dropped the crackling needle on my dad’s worn copy of “Blood on the Tracks” or discovered Fleetwood Mac while reading the back of my mom’s hand-initialed “Rumors” sleeve, all the frustrating hours I spent sifting through stacks of Harry Belafonte Christmas albums disappeared into the forgettable confines of a bad dream.
The best records are the timeless ones—albums that stand on their own merit, alienated from the contexts of place and time in which they were produced.
And with this in mind, I can’t help but listen to M. Ward’s latest album, aptly-titled “Hold Time,” without taking the critical perspective of my own future 15-year-old progeny—a kid that, fingers crossed, doesn’t dig Barbara Streisand.
With five albums enmeshed in America’s most enduring musical traditions—folk, blues and country—already under his belt, Ward understands the importance of aging well, and “Hold Time” is as historically American as Conestoga wagons and manifest destiny. From the train-chugging country stomp of “Fisher of Men” to the crackling sunbursts of AM radio-leaning guitar work on “Epistemology,” Ward’s has two calloused fingers pressed firmly against the pulse of a bygone era.
Yet Ward’s disarming falsetto—a gospel croon glowing with the dusty sunlight that streams through attic windows—lends his often formulaic songs a redeeming idiosyncrasy that distinguishes them from the vast canon of Americana. Lyrically though, Ward never strays too far from the recycled, albeit timeless, themes of religion, death, love, and loneliness.
On album highlight “One Hundred Million Years,” Ward addresses eternity over a simple acoustic progression and a finger picked melody that could have been recorded a generation ago:
“This river that we ride will roll on when we die/ Oh, my soul, one hundred million years/ And this love, this lie between you and I/ Is older than that burning ball of fire up in the sky,” Ward sings with a fragile timbre, wavering somewhere between sadness and hope.
The late American writer Thomas Wolfe once penned the maxim, “He who lets himself be whored by fashion will be whored by time.” And if “Hold Time” ever slips into danger of losing favor with my future imaginary children, it will owe its demise to Ward’s occasional lapses into trendy tastefulness.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as infatuated with Zooey Deschanel as any other indie-leaning college-age male, but her backing prescence on “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Rave On” feels more like a cash-in on She & Him’s recent mainstream success than a necessary addition to Ward’s typically modest production.
On the other hand, Lucinda William’s scratchy, world-weary vocals on country classic “Oh Lonesome Me” are the perfect compliment to Ward’s aching slide guitar—at least before he sinks the whole thing in a lush, tasteful string arrangement.
Yet all production hoodwinking aside, “Hold Time” still resonates with the weary joy of a songwriter at the pinnacle of his craft.
No, Ward is not going to win any album of the year awards in 2009. Nor is he going to go down as a contemporary musical pioneer either. But those who dismiss his work on these grounds are missing the point.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork.com, Ward explained his intentional ignorance of contemporary music and his preference for classics which have already survived several generations of critical teeth.
“An understanding of the cycles of history is vital. One of the best ways of coping with anything that comes your way, whether it be artistic or non-artistic, is by having an understanding of history,” Ward said.
It looks like my grandmother was on to something after all.