A reassuring, warm vibe envelops Supernatural Thing, M. Ward‘s first album since December 2020 (the Billie Holiday tribute Think of Spring) and his first record of original material since April 2020 (Migration Stories). Offering nothing in much in terms of a new musical direction (save perhaps for an extra helping of weirdness), Ward continues to mine a mix of genres that weaves together country, folk, and a reverb-heavy, low-key nod to rockabilly. It may not convert many new fans, but anyone enamored with Ward’s style will find plenty to enjoy here.
Ward kicks off Supernatural Thing with the simple, country/folk stylings of “Lifeline”, evoking John Wesley Harding / Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan, complete with a simple evocation of love delivered in Ward’s light rasp: “I’ll say it out loud in a crowded room / At the top of my lungs / I want you to know / I love you so / But I need you to be a lifeline for me.”
“Lifeline” is followed by several songs featuring a wealth of guest stars, but it never seems like an overstuffed “check out all my cool friends” affair. Instead, Ward has chosen to populate the album with artists who bolster the compositions. First Aid Kit‘s vocal appearance on “Too Young to Die” only deepens the mesmerizing sense of country-western mystery, particularly the ever-present image of death in everyday society: “I first heard that from an old guy / Too young to die / Now it’s spray-painted on the half-pipe / Too young to die.” First Aid Kid return later in Supernatural Thing for the alt-country stomper “Engine 5”, giving an additional layer of vocal depth that would probably be lacking if the track featured frequent Ward collaborator Zooey Deschanel.
Elsewhere, Neko Case stops by to contribute vocals to the tweaked torch song stylings of “Dedication Hour”, a blurry, dreamlike combination of Tom Waits and Billie Holiday. How Ward, Case, and the band pull together what sounds like a half-remembered ballad from a David Lynch movie speaks volumes about the composition and, perhaps more importantly, its execution.
The country twang of the title track, which Ward admits is actually about a dream he had about Elvis Presley, is another excellent example of Ward combining a toe-tapping retro musical creation with otherworldly imagery. “New Kerrang”, featuring Scott McMicken, sees Ward livening things even more with barrelhouse piano and a skittering beat that invokes both an effortless rockabilly sensibility and ska’s urgency.
Supernatural Thing‘s ten songs feature two curious covers: a downbeat, lyric-free version of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, from David Bowie‘s final record, Blackstar, and a stark version of Daniel Johnston‘s “Story of an Artist”. The Bowie cover, featuring vocals from Jim James and mournful, gorgeous saxophone from Kelly Pratt, turns the original arrangement on its head, sounding completely different yet appropriately reverent. The Johnston cover, recorded solo by Ward with vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano, is delivered in an uncomplicated, clutter-free manner that renders Johnston’s passionate artistic statement intact. Ward explained in the album’s press notes that Bowie and Johnson “are constant sources of inspiration for me, for I don’t know how many years”.
Supernatural Thing may not be the best album M. Ward has ever created. Still, it’s a highly enjoyable musical journey that, like a novel with unique twists and turns, is greatly aided by its sense of darkness, mystery, and exciting characters.