I can’t decide if M. Ward is the best or worst kept secret in the music world. He seems to have taken the indie actor’s method of `one for me, one for them,’ though the ones for them are only slightly less indie than his own stuff. Ward, whose shortened first name makes me wonder if he were an English major who couldn’t bear to end his name with a misspelled preposition, has had his share of `behind the scenes’ projects. Bright Eyes (whose Conor Oberst once shouted “M. Ward for president” during a performance on Conan O’Brian), Jenny Lewis, Neko Case and My Morning Jacket have all enlisted this Portland folkie’s able assistance, but his most well-known side project was with last year’s acclaimed duet with Zooey Deschanel, She & Him. I don’t care who you are; everyone becomes second banana to Zooey, as I’m sure Ben Gibbard is about to find out. But, Ward’s solo efforts have finally started to gain some attention of their own, and for good reason. His forays into early rock, folk, country and bluegrass have yielded and handful of magnificent thematic releases and a faithful following to boot. Hold Time, Ward’s latest, is an equally magnificent release, with a few meditations on faith itself.
It should be of no surprise that M. Ward has some covers embedded within Hold Time. It should also be of no surprise that those covers are of country and rockabilly classics, “Rave On” and “Oh Lonesome Me,” as well as the Sinatra classic “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Sure, he’s dabbled in the hipster classics with treatments of songs by Yo La Tengo, David Bowie, Velvet Underground and a couple by Daniel Johnston, but he’s also frolicked in the Beach Boys, Bach, and a 1928 pop classic, “Sweethearts on Parade.” And although the previous covers have proved masterful, it really hasn’t been until these two most recent covers that I think M. Ward has found his comfort zone. Buddy Holly practically inhabits Hold Time. Other than a few instances, it seems as if Ward actually went back to the late 1950’s and, well, `held time.’ The opening track, “For Beginners (AKA Mt. Zion),” proves my point, starting like a sedated version of “Words of Love” or “Peggy Sue,” in which Ward ruminates on a time when he was a relative unknown, yet laden with Biblical metaphor. “Never Had Nobody Like You” is one of the few anachronistic tracks, with fuzzy guitars and a stomping Gary Glitter or T. Rex backbeat. It still feels like old school rock and roll with its simple chord structures and a guest appearance by the honey-voiced Zoeey Deschanel.
Strident fans of Ward’s early stripped down numbers might be dismayed by the luxurious ballads that follow, drenched in sweeping strings as they are, but “Jailbird” and the title track are gorgeous songs that should win over even the most ardent purists. And then we come to the first cover. “Rave On” is stripped of the glottal stop vocal style of Buddy Holly, slowing down the track into a lazy, summery, front-porch sing-along, though near the end it sounds as if it could be a church hymn with bells and heavenly chorale. The follower, “To Save Me,” is surprisingly more of a rockabilly-flavored track than “Rave On,” though peppered with Brian Wilson flourishes, possibly due to the influence of guest Jason Lytle. Ward’s lyrics ruminate on childlike thoughts of a supreme being, which somewhat reflect Wilson’s boasts of his `teenage symphonies to God.’ “Stars of Leo” and “Fisher of Men” are other tracks that worship at the altar of rockabilly while the lyrics reference a different kind of worship. The former with so much soul-stirring bombast that I am reminded of Richard Hawley, specifically, “Tonight the Streets Are Ours,” and that’s a very good thing. The latter has some of that Johnny Cash `old time religion,’ making me wonder if Ward’s next tour will be of penitentiaries.
The second cover comes with “Oh Lonesome Me,” a duet with Lucinda Williams, and is practically dripping with wistfulness. Williams’ voice is diametrically opposite of the She & Him dynamic, but it does recall the days of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. “Epistemology,” “Blake’s View” and “Shangri-La” take on various aspects of the miracles of faith, including the mysteries of death, salvation and the pitfalls of dogma, yet all with several layers. Ward’s songs don’t speak of religious fervor so much as metaphor for the miracles of secular love as salvation, or the structures of life as song, with beginnings and eventual endings. Only a few artists have been able to successfully intertwine religion and popular music without suffering the backlash of the left-leaning anti-CCM hordes, including U2, Johnny Cash and most recently Sufjan Stevens, and now one can count M. Ward among them.
As lauded and revered as M. Ward is within his own spheres, that of the alt-folk trade, I find myself surprised at equal turns by how many people have or have not heard of the old-timey troubadour. I’ve been playing Hold Time, an apt title for my inexcusable lag in writing this review, as well as the more obvious references to anachronism and the title track’s longing for love’s pause, in my workplace. A woman in her forties approached me and inquired as to the artist, but before I could say anything, she interrupted, “is this M. Ward?” With my affirmative reply, she wandered off with a dreamy look on her face. After all, blessed art she (& him?) who discovers the wonders of M. Ward.
Video: “Hold Time”