Nearly four years ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, and in turn the country, that the war in Iraq would last “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” As I said, that was four years ago, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for American troops so far. Meanwhile, Bush and his government wonder why support for the war is waning. It’s one thing to support our troops abroad, it’s an entirely other prospect to have your government lie to you, send you overseas underprepared, and completely underestimate an opponent. It is these factors that eventually take their tolls on soldiers. Longer than expected stints, backdoor drafts and bad intelligence all play a part in demoralizing and debilitating these men and women. Many of the soldiers involved in the Vietnam War, one of the first examples of modern jungle conflict, were forever changed, and most came back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would imagine the same is going to happen for soldiers in the Middle East. Yet those who claim to `support the troops’ conveniently forget the human cost, and those who protest seem to forget that it is the government and not the troops who are usually to blame. Not so for M. Ward, who takes a stab at capturing what life is like Post-War.
Post-War is a different kind of folk rock affair. It’s not a protest album like Neil Young’s Living With War and further still from those ‘patriotic’ country albums that swept the nation after 9/11. It is, instead, the best kind of theme album, that being one that is concerned mostly with telling stories and relating emotions through the art of song. Last time out, M. Ward brought us a collection of songs that lived and breathed old-time airwaves in Transistor Radio. But this time around, the sound is a different kind of timeless. “Poison Cup” kicks off the album like a Roy Orbison tune featuring guest Mike Mogis on timpani drums! One of the highlights of the album follows that quickly with Ward’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home,” and the great lyric turn, “God it’s great to be alive / It takes the skin right off my hide / To think I’ll have to give it all up someday.” The song is rocket propelled along by a set of dual drummers, Rachel Blumberg of the Decemberists and Jordan Hudson of the Thermals and also the glorious backup vocals of the great Neko Case. “Right in the Head” then tells a tale of one of a set of brothers coming home from the war with Ward singing, “I hope he’s right in the head, even if he has to wrong someone / because I lived with many ghosts when I was younger, and I will live with many ghosts until I go.” The incredible title track follows, slow and morose, poignant and moving, making it and the title track a magnificent and polar combination.
“Requiem,” as the title might suggest, pays tribute to a fallen friend, this time in a very Devendra Banhart freak folk romp style. “Chinese Translation” is another gem, asking, “What can you do with pieces of a broken heart?” My Morning Jacket’s Jim James hops along for the ride on this track, as well as a return of the dual drummers who find their way onto most of the songs on the album, and will also be part of his touring band! “Magic Trick,” with its Sgt. Pepper-style crowd noises and a return to that new folk sound is also somewhat of a honky-tonk foot stomper with Jim James back in the supporting role. After a rollicking instrumental called “Neptune’s Net,” Ward presents one of the more intimate songs on the album, “Rollercoaster,” a fifties-style early rock slowed-down and smoldering boogie-woogie track. “Today’s Undertaking” returns to the big theatrical sound of “Poison Cup,” complete with thundering timpani, before leading into the closer, the organ heavy “Afterword / Rag,” which is a two-parter, ending with the solo finger-picking with which his fans are accustomed.
With every album, M. Ward impresses. Each one is stylistically different than the one before it, in scope, sound and themes. Post-War isn’t the most scathing of albums based on war, but it isn’t meant to be. Instead, Ward focuses on the everyday, on the human side of the effects of war, celebrating the return home, and mourning the violent and hidden aftermath. No matter how people in particular view the current war, I think we can all agree that we get to Post-War sooner rather than later. The Vietnam era had its share of folk singers and protest songs including Neil Young and Stephen Stills, but for me, the Iraq War will take on a different tone, that of M. Ward’s passion, elegant prose and stunning musical composition.