On his 2003 breakthrough album, The Transfiguration of Vincent, M. Ward presented us with an album so personal and deep with feeling, so imbued with heartache and loss, and led by a singer and guitarist that can project a beautiful sound while staying curled up in himself, that it could be as difficult to listen to as it was to ignore.
Transistor Radio showed Ward opening up a little, become less a conduit for his sound and more a performer of it. But he made the album all about the old-time AM radio, and the conceptual nostalgia didn’t quite come together. It seemed unnecessary to force a history on Ward’s songs, because his own sound is so steeped in musical tradition. And Ward himself seems such an astute student of music that he doesn’t need to conceptualize his songs’ influences.
Which is what made 2006’s Post-War and his new album, Hold Time, such great turns for Ward. Like its predecessor, Hold Time is steeped in plenty of musical traditions—folk, country, classic rock, blues, soul, and, yes, the AM band—but all of them are laid upon the unpaved road of M. Ward’s sound. His guitar work, often steeped in the feel of John Fahey and Robbie Basho, has morphed into a complex sound all his own. And, perhaps most importantly, Ward is opening up even more as a singer.
That seems like a strange thing to say about a guy who has given us music so heartbreakingly personal in the past. But the success in Hold Time is in Ward stepping out into the spotlight, coming fully into his own as a performer. To hear opener “For Beginners” is to hear an utterly charming singer rather than a slump-shouldered and sullen one. The Appalachian feel to “One Hundred Million Years” doesn’t imply a tradition of sadness, but instead taps into a long-standing and restless joy that has always been a part of folk music. And “Stars of Leo” serves as a statement of purpose for Ward, lovingly paying homage to the feeling in his gut that music brings, the impossible highs and lows it can bring out in us all.
And those are just the songs that sound close to his earlier material. M. Ward steps out on new, fascinating limbs quite a bit on Hold Time. Overall, the album sounds much bigger than anything he’s ever done, and you can feel Ward having fun with all that size. “Never Had Nobody Like You” does feature Zooey Deschanel, but it is hardly a She & Him number. In fact, the crunchy guitars and bouncing drums owe quite a bit to classic rock, and works much better than the overly cute She & Him stuff. “To Save Me” sounds, at first, a lot like “Big Boat” and Ward’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home”. But further listens reveal it as something just as rocking, but far more lush than those other songs. The backing vocals—provided by ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle—haunt behind Ward’s breathy growl, and Lytle’s knack for fuzzy atmosphere and a quick-strike mandolin line make the song sound simultaneously larger-than-life and completely elemental. And “Fisher of Men” sounds like vintage Ward, but with a nice twist. He fully embraces country music here, and the results make it sound like Ward singing over the Tennessee Three. While that may sound derivative, it’s not. Ward’s reverbed guitar lines slide and dip over the track the way only his can, but their high-treble tone is surely paying tribute at the same time.
This bigger sound, layered with guitars and strings, keyboards and choirs of backing vocals, isn’t just in service to his happier side. The highs Ward sings about on “Stars of Leo” wouldn’t mean a thing without the lows to accompany them. The title track is achingly slow, full of strings and keys and little else besides Ward’s keening vocals. “You were beyond comprehension tonight, but I understood…”, he sings to start off the bittersweet track, and he sounds like a downright torch singer, pulling on each note, twisting and squeezing them until the emotion drips out. It would be the quietest moment on a pretty up-tempo album if it weren’t for Ward’s version of “Oh Lonesome Me”.
With this track, originally written by Don Gibson, Ward proves once again there are few performers out there who can be as compelling when covering a song as he can. Here, he makes the song a duet with Lucinda Williams, and the two work fantastically together. Both their voices creak and wrinkle, but it is how they deliver the lines that makes the song. As if the original wasn’t achingly drawn-out enough, there are huge holes between the lines in Ward’s version, and those spaces really drive home the sentiment of the song. It is heartbreaking, yes, but there is also a comfort in that space, a feeling of dealing with solitude, of owning it, at least for a time, and even inviting us to revel in the solitude ourselves. It is, like so many M. Ward covers, plainly stunning.
And through all of Hold Time, from the unbridled joy of “One Hundred Million Years” to the bittersweet croon of the title track, to the sadness and space of “Oh Lonesome Me”, Ward never turns inward. He is always performing out on this album, playing with friends and letting their influences shape the songs, building a bridge to the rest of the world. Once again, Ward has passed a musical history lesson, but he has pushed past that and given us something new. Not just new music, but a new M. Ward. A player with a bigger sound, with a charming, sly grin hiding behind his gravelly voice. The unpaved road of Ward’s sound used to lead to an isolated cabin. But now, with Hold Time, it splits and leads out to a country bar or a city streakhouse or a cook out in the suburbs or a campsite in the mountains. This is music that can reach anyone from a performer that could be, amazingly enough, just hitting his stride.