Each of M. Ward’s last three albums — Transistor Radio, Transfiguration of Vincent, and End of Amnesia — resembles its own universe. Each feels self-contained. Themes flow among the songs, holding them together. Transistor Radio (2005) captures the transmissions of eclectic radio stations that have long since vanished. Transfiguration of Vincent (2003) is an extended, ghostly mediation on death. On End of Amnesia (2002) he retreats into an interior monologue of fears and dreams. Each album overall feels like the hushed entrance into an artistic world completely of Ward’s design, a world between decades and genres. Ward’s Fahey-inspired, finger-picking guitar style and his pure but raspy, unencumbered-by-decades jazz / blues / folk singer’s voice glide over genre lines, but these three albums never sound eclectic, even when he brings David Bowie and the Beach Boys into the mix.
In concert, the bubble burst. Whether opening, headlining, or doing that three-person folk circus tour that he did with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, M. Ward performs like a jack-of-all-trades, crooning in an imitative Satchmo voice one minute and playing a low-key love ballad the next. Musically his performances differ little from the albums — it’s the feeling that’s different. He doesn’t turn his back from the crowd to channel spirits; he stands in front of the crowd and puts on a show.
If those three albums represented insular portals to another place and time, M. Ward’s latest album Post-War is in tone more like a traveling roadshow. It bears the openness and free-wheeling nature of his live show, with rambling tunes standing next to earnest ballads, and guests like Jim James and Neko Case on hand to turn a number into a sing-along. And there’s a fuller-band sound, especially noticeable on the more rollicking songs, with Ward’s touring band going into full rolling-and-rocking mode. On songs like “Magic Trick” — given even more of a live feeling through crowd noise — and the Daniel Johnston cover “To Go Home”, there’s a strong sense of energy and community, of musicians having a good time playing music together.
Those good-vibes moments combine with the title Post-War to suggest a rebuilding after hard times, a looking towards tomorrow. At the same time, the album carries a heavy sense of the tough times themselves. The title track feels like the most cogent expression of these themes. Ward sings slowly, deliberately, investing each word with meaning when he sings of financial burdens and the feeling that everything has gone wrong, but also when he swings the other direction. His voice is wistful, hopeful, as he sings, “I’ll know when everything feels right / Some lucky night.”
That song comes after a darker blues number that seems like a hope-against-hope that those with the power to kill (soldiers, or those in control of the nation’s weapons supply, perhaps) know what they’re doing. Ward’s voice contains a fair amount of anger, sadness, and reluctance in it as he sings, “I hope he’s right in the head / Even if he has to wrong someone”. That song’s final minute may sound like silence if your stereo’s volume isn’t high enough. Listen closer, though, and you’ll hear it as a field recording of nature, either Eden or the aftermath of the apocalypse.
Post-War also carries a moving tribute to a departed soldier, “Requiem”, which feels like a relative of the Transfiguration of Vincent album (and of the departed-friend tributes on My Morning Jacket’s Z), while also fitting snugly with the two songs that preceded it (“Right in the Head” and “Post-War”) as an expression of sadness at war that carries some hopefulness within it, as well as with the album’s overall preoccupation with the ups and downs of life (the “Rollercoaster”, one title calls it).
It’d be wrong to mischaracterize the album as “about war” or about any one other topic, especially considering the album’s variety-show mood, which can easily drift from a folk sing-along jam to a surf-rock-ish instrumental to glowing, almost jazz-like ballads. The album opens with a patient, out-of-time, absolutely gorgeous love song called “Poison Cup”, and includes a few other equally haunting ballads about the search for love. “Chinese Translation” has a lazy, rolling-along mood, and with perhaps the album’s most memorable melody — a delicately sung one — tells of a search for answers, about heartbreak and getting beyond pain.
On these songs and all of the others, the emphasis is also on Ward’s unique singing voice, his transcendent guitar playing, his skill at writing melodies that last. His singing has a presence to it that brings to mind jazz vocalists — someone as unearthly as Billie Holiday, even — but also the grittiness of a deep-South bluesmen. No one else sounds exactly like him. The uniqueness of sound is a factor in every M. Ward album, and especially one as compact (37 minutes) yet varied as Post-War. This album also has a crispness and sonic depth about it, and his performances are particularly assured, easily some of his best yet.
In composition and performance, Ward displays an ear for the distinct hallmarks of so many American music genres. Yet he has a way to blend them all together into a personality of his own. Post-War showcases that personality succinctly and brilliantly, while also opening up his music to the outside world, to its troubles and its charms.