M. Ward: “Hold Time”
M. Ward is a bit of a magician– a conjurer who, with nothing more than a wave of his hand, seems to summon the spirits of the past just long enough for them to whisper their secrets, then dismisses them just as quickly. Of course, it’s all a matter of smoke an mirrors; there’s nothing supernatural about Ward’s music, save, perhaps, for his God-given gifts as a musical craftsman, but in a way, that makes his sleight of hand all the more impressive. He’s a skilled technician, able to take the familiar building blocks of popular song and refract them into something new, something vital.
The spirits he summons– of Roy Orbison’s dignified, operatic pop, and of Johnny Cash’s stately country, of syrupy strings and girl-group harmonies– come mostly from the 1950s, an era that, in Ward’s mind, reflects the Golden Age of pop music. With Hold Time, he may have given us his definitive argument, an album of conviction and craft that doesn’t so much relive the past as recreate it, projecting it on a big screen with little wisps of whimsy darting around the edges. It’s a work of previously unimagined musical sophistication and imagination from an artist who exemplifies what it means to look to the past as a way of moving forward.
It’s an inspired recording, with little bits of magic in every song. It should come as no surprise that Ward– the musical architect behind last year’s sweet 60s throwback She & Him– can serve up something as tinged with nostalgia as this, but the echoes of the past that resonate through these tracks are precisely that– echoes, evocations, suggestions, not the album’s actual substance, and certainly not the full extent of Ward’s gifts. Now that his identity is no longer reduced to a pronoun, Ward fleshes out his music with greater complexity and more careful craft than ever before. And his greatest illusion of all, of course, is that he makes it all seem to very simple.
You might say that he takes a less-is-more approach to his music, though that might seem like an odd statement to make about a man who adorns his songs with timpanis and pianos and strings and– quite literally– all the bells and whistles. And while he’s certainly no minimalist, he is a very careful craftsman who knows how to keep his songs short and lean, who writes lyrics with momentum and cadence, who embellishes his songs with just a few brief notes from a piano or a couple of well-placed timpani shots rather bog things down with cluttered, stiffling arrangements. He has a sensualist’s ear for sound, but he also keeps his songs cut close to the bone, which only serves to highlight what a terrific songwriter he is. He bends genres to fit his creative vision, so while you could loosely categorize the galloping “Never Had Nobody Like You”– which, by the way, features She on harmony vocals– as a vintage pop throwback, or the steady groove of “Fisher of Men” as an homage to the country two-stepping of the Texas Two, these songs don’t recreate familiar genres so much as capture their spirit, revealing that Ward has absorbed these genres well enough that he’s able to mix and match their most basic building blocks, as on the glorious burst of pop called “Epistemology,” which seems to summarize everything Ward’s about in just under four minutes (which makes it one of the longer songs on the album).
His “building blocks” approach extends to the lyrics, as well, where Ward takes familiar vocabularies– both from the pop music vernacular and from the Bible– and employs turns of phrase rich in connotative meaning to create his own little language, one in which just a couple of words can capture a world of emotion, simply because the words are so heavy with history and significance. “Epistemology” is a prime example once again; who else but Ward could convert familiar love-song language, blues signifiers, and biblical allusions into so rich an evocative a vocabulary? His archetypal language allows him to write both concisely and effectively about love and death; this is an album made in mortality’s shadow but still very much optimistic and alive, drunk on the possibilities offered by real love. He waxes Christological in “Fisher of Men” and quotes the titular poet in “Blake’s View,” and somehow manages to avoid making any of it sound philosophical or overly intellectual.
And for an album filled with so many small, simply treasures– like the way the pianos crescendo in “To Save Me,” or the swetly whispered harmonies in “Jailbird”– the auteur’s perspective is surprisingly macro. He puts these bits and pieces together into a seamless whole, and not even Lucinda Williams‘ gravelly-voiced cameo in “Oh Lonesome Me” or the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” distracts from the album’s flow or throws a hiccup into the consistent tone. It’s the way in which Ward pulls all of these little things together that makes him a singular artist, and Hold Time not just a pleasant collection of little tricks, but a grand vision from an artist who seems to have entire worlds at his fingertips.