When M. Ward’s last release, End of Amnesia, was released three years ago, critics collectively wet themselves in delight. They hailed his raspy twang as that of the next Tom Waits and compared his poetic, watercolor-like folk to Elliott Smith, Grandaddy and John Fahey. They stuck the relative unknown at the tops of year-end charts, assigned him road duty with Bright Eyes and clung tightly to the album, waiting to see what the Portland-based singer-songwriter would offer up next.
Luckily for them (and all of us, really), Ward is a disappointment to none and avoids the sophomore slump with his latest, Transfiguration of Vincent. The album maintains the same raw, haunting pulse present on Amnesia while expanding the artist’s palette with more intimate shades of blues, jazz, pop and country. And, like Amnesia, there is an ever-present familiarity and comfort in Vincent. Perhaps it is the old-timey feel of backwoods strumming or the wise, enveloping warmth of Ward’s deep voice – whatever it is, it feels more like unearthing an aged love letter than a crisp, new delivery.
The album is introduced through a whisper rather than a wail, with the delicate “Transfiguration #1.” The instrumental is slow and sweet, accompanied by cricket chirps and musty saloon pianos, hearkening to humid evenings spent on front porches in rapt awe of old bluesmen.
Vincent carries on from there with “Vincent O’Brien,” the story of the album’s downtrodden namesake. “He only sings when he’s sad and he’s sad all the time / So he sings the whole night through / Yeah he sings in the daytime too,” Ward proclaims in a gravely growl that justifies any and all comparisons to Waits.
The minimal ballad “Undertaker” takes then, speeding up a bit with the near-cheerful, practically-poppy “Outta My Head,” boots-kickingly danceable country ditty “Helicopter,” and the heart wrenching lullaby “A Voice At The End Of The Line.”
The same soft, fluid air of familiarity continues up to “Let’s Dance,” Vincent‘s last vocal track. Intricate guitars, aching harmonicas and hushed piano playing prepare for Ward’s stark vocals, catching listeners off-guard with what the song really is – a stunning, near-unrecognizable cover of David Bowie’s glittering original.
In a 2002 interview, Ward told me that instrumentals were his “main interest” and that he would likely begin and end each of his albums with one. Two years later, he carried out that idea. Vincent closes with “Transfiguration #2,” a brief, two-minute piano piece that – while acting as a final signature on one magnificent piece – also serves as the likely foundation of another.
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