If Ward isn't out of his comfort zone, he isn't stuck in the mud, either.
M. Ward has spent much of his career defining and refining his particular sound. Aside from his collaborations (such as She & Him with Zooey Deschanel and the Monsters of Folk project), he's been consistent, offering a string of indie-folkish albums high in quality, but low on surprises. It's been fine; new releases haven't quite felt redundant, but Ward creeps close to that place. More Rain, his eighth album, continues that trend, but while it doesn't startle, it doesn't settle either, offering some nice variety and an expected level of songwriting.
Ward says the new album, and presumably its suggestively dreary title, comes from the depressing news he regular reads. If so, nothing about the world has had an enervating effect on him. We still discover the sort of sad songs that he does well. “Time Won't Wait” bounces along even as Ward laments that lack of “one soul to love me” as he watches everyone else “going out tonight”. Where we might have expected a simple country-blues sound, or maybe even a honky-tonk flourish, Ward instead sneaks in a T. Rex guitar riff. He feints at classic rock and boogie, which keeps the song from turning maudlin. It's a self-aware performance by the singer, and it's a surmountable loneliness.
The classic rock and brightness peaks with his cover of the Beach Boys' “You're So Good to Me”. He stays true to the tone of the original even while doing his own folksier take on it. In the midst of an album that doesn't shy from heartbreak or personal struggles, the track provides an extra bright spot. Ward knows how to deliver the lines with all their throwback weight, but he also knows how to make the song newly his.
Like that song, album closer “I'm Going Higher” resists the downward pull of life. Ward sings, “I'm going higher some day” with a gospel-blues belief, even as he acknowledges the unlikely prospect of that sort of release. The disc opens with the sound of rain, but the album makes a steady rise to something brighter. Where there's loneliness and isolation, Ward finds a guitar-driven path to somewhere better, maybe heaven. Maybe a beach.
Of course, much of the fun in the album still lies in the sadness. “Girl From Conejo Valley” opens with an alt-country riff (think Jayhawks) but it surprises with a Moog-based swirl. Ward's lyrics here reveal a singer uncovering his own disappointing discoveries. He describes his “old girlfriend” changing from a series of “used to not to” statuses to “now” situations that have taken her away, such as her connection to Motorcycle Wilson, who now gives her free rides in his sidecar seat.
Even so, there's no wallowing. The swirly synthesizer seems determined to take Ward up to his helicopter to move on from this mess.
As much as More Rain might suggest dim lighting and general gloom, Ward actually gives us a fun ride (even with songs like “Slow Driving Man”) through a series of meditations, character studies, and temptations and confessions until it feels like a well-earned (and non-escapist) escape. If Ward isn't out of his comfort zone, he isn't stuck in the mud either.