Duet for Guitars #2 is singer-songwriter M. Ward’s 1999 debut, “getting the reissue treatment” for the second time. This time it’s the folky artist’s new label, Merge, rather than Howe Gelb’s considerably smaller Ow-Om imprint, where it was quietly reissued for a first time in 2000. And now, post-Post-War, it’s more understandable: M. Ward has accumulated the kind of fans, one feels, who would appreciate the chance to dig for a bit of history, for the ability to say to themselves, “So this is where he came from.”
What do we really expect when delving into the back-catalogue of (relatively) indie artists we love? Like with the unfortunate leak of those early Karen O sketches earlier this year, sometimes an artist’s first forays into creativity are too fragmentary, or too personal, to be of great public interest. You can imagine, too, that returning to a debut eight years down the road may reveal a certain dust-covered style, an out-of-date quality that the artist has since matured away from. There’s little danger of that with M. Ward—in the first place, his music is sepia-toned at best, and the delicate folk ballad as a form is going to be timeless, fair bet. But he has matured, that’s for sure: a simple comparison of “Chinese Translation” (from his latest album) with “Beautiful Car”, both streaming on his MySpace, is enough to demonstrate that. It’s not just the expanded sonic palette and more sophisticated use of instrumentation; it’s a more intimate use of vocal nuance and, more importantly, an evolved songwriting skill.
That’s not to say the singer had nothing to begin with. Listening to Duet for Guitars #2 gives remarkably little to be regretful of (the old “there’s so much potential not taken advantage of”). Instead, this collection of low-key, mainly acoustic songs is a pleasant, undemanding journey in its own right. “Beautiful Car” may be the most arresting composition, initially. A shuffling country-folk ballad, the song gets regret just right, and the metaphor has considerable power. Similarly, “Scene from #12”, with its somewhat off-putting descriptions of the respiratory illness of a neighbour, still holds us enthralled in its chorus, neatly building from acoustic guitar, adding buzzing harmonica for the pre-chorus, and then a subtle synth countermelody. Even on his debut, Ward demonstrates he can pen an intelligent, layered song.
There are stronger echoes of Neutral Milk Hotel here than in the singer’s later work. It’s not only the guitar fuzz behind “Fishing Boat Song”, but the way it butts up against the folk melodies. You can hear Bright Eyes here, too, and throughout; Ward uses the same melodic tropes (falling back to the tonic at the end of phrases in a way that seems portentous somehow), and his voice, while distinct, shares a certain fragility with Oberst. But unlike someone like Willy Mason, who relies on his distinctive voice while essentially aping overtrodden songwriting formulae, M. Ward’s ballads feel really heartfelt. Sure, some of the songs feel like they could benefit from Ward’s subsequently expanded musical palette, could have hit with a fuller emotion backed by strings or that atmospheric vocal studio treatment from “To Go Home”. But it’s by no means an enjoyment-limiting observation.
The album begins and ends with a couple of acoustic guitar instrumental duets that gently introduce and gently farewell the album. Duet for Guitars #2 may not leave the strong impression that Post-War and Transistor Radio did—but we’re hardly expecting it to. Consistent with his temperament, M. Ward’s debut is full of sweetness and repentance. It’s not a surprise, but at least those fans can now sigh happily to themselves, “So that’s where he came from.”