M. Ward's Transfiguration of Vincent album is a house filled with ghosts, from the spirits of friends who have passed away to the departed legends of American roots music. Ward's music is an especially vivid channeling of old-time country, jazz, folk, bluegrass and blues. At the center is Ward's guitar playing; he nimbly, soulfully picks at an acoustic most of the time (a la the late, great John Fahey). But there's also harmonica, saloon-style piano, and more. Helped out by a Portland-based band appropriately and enigmatically called The Old Joe Clarks, Ward creates a full, alluring atmosphere that will recall for listeners all sorts of classic American music, real, remembered and imagined. Traveling troubadours, torch singers in after-hours jazz clubs, aged blues musicians playing on a front porch somewhere in the South to an audience of crickets and ghosts all of these and more are embodied in one 20-something guy from Portland.
The song forms, style and instrumentation of Transfiguration of Vincent recall music that's both old and uniquely American, perhaps even more directly than those on Ward's equally impressive 2001 album End of Amnesia (on Future Farmer Records). Like on that album, however, there's also an overriding sense of being outside of any particular time. The musical style seems old yet is seldom of one particular genre or time period. A rolling blues number leads into a jazz ballad into a quick and catchy pop song. And most of the time all of these styles are jumbled into one. Complicating the time setting even more, there's a slow, serious, country-blues cover of David Bowie's glossy '80s dance-pop song "Let's Dance". While I was more than ready to put on my critic's hat and tear that song apart as a misstep, Ward floods the song with raw emotion, turning it into a powerful confession of love.
Ward sings and performs with a very now sort of presence, further bridging the gap between the present and past. His voice has a gravelly, grounded quality but can soar when he wants it to, when he's trying to accentuate a particular feeling. Unlike most musicians who draw heavily and overtly on the past, Ward seems less interested in nostalgia or in time-travel than in capitalizing on the feelings that the music of the past evokes in people, using it to transport people to a place far away from boundaries of time or space, where the sounds, feelings and stories of the past meet those of the present in peace.
That feeling of floating between times fits rightly with the lyrical content of the album, which uses dreams and fantasy to express sadness and gratitude toward someone who has left this world. "This record was designed to keep the loss alive and behind me," Ward notes in the liner notes. Mysterious words, but fitting for an album where death lurks in a myriad of complex ways. Through songs with names like "Undertaker" and "Dead Man", death lurks not as something to be feared but as a mystery, as inevitable as sadness and disappointment but carrying with it a certain sort of beauty. "Dead Man", which starts with the words "dead man, dead man don't cry", has especially intriguing words and a message tinged with hope.
Transfiguration of Vincent has weight to match that of the deepest, roughest blues, yet there's also imagination and creativity in his approach to the world and to music. He sings of rivers, animals, and the sky like he's been dreaming since he was born, yet his album is firmly rooted in musical styles that come directly from the experiences of hard-working, everyday people. Ward's music both captures the sights and sounds of America and transcends them, taking us into some imagined land with its own hopes, dreams, and legends.