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M. Ward

Still Holding True

Feb 01, 2009 M. Ward Photography by Crackerfarm Bookmark and Share

“You can only discover something once,” M. Ward says, speaking about both his own music and the influence other artists have had on him. Over the course of his first five solo LPs, Ward slowly opened up, both lyrically and musically, so that each successive album still exuded that feeling of discovery. His sixth, Hold Time, is no exception.

Since his earliest recordings, Ward has blossomed, layering new sound upon new sound, adding complexities with each release. Hold Time finds him delving deeper into the AM radio sound he explored with Transistor Radio—and more recently with actress Zooey Deschanel as She & Him—while staying true to his folk-rock troubadour roots. There’s still the folk-singer’s vocabulary of song history interwoven into Ward’s lyrics; he’s quick to attribute to David Bowie a reference to “absolute beginners” in Hold Time’s opener, “For Beginners.” “Never Had Nobody Like You” shares DNA with Webb Pierce’s 1959 hit “I Ain’t Never.” On “Epistem-ology,” Ward seems to comment on this tradition: “If you’re trying to sing an old song/you’re getting all the words wrong/well, you’re just following along/too closely in the book.”

For Ward, the songbook is a malleable object. “All the songs come from songs I’ve grown up with,” he says, “and it’s going to shine through in places.” His timelessness stems from his respect for what’s come before, an interest that made him kindred spirits with musicians like Deschanel (whom Ward, not surprisingly, likens to, “one of those old-time actresses—the kind that could do anything”) and Lucinda Williams, who duets with Ward on the heartrending “Oh Lonesome Me.” It’s a perfect fit (and an ironic title) for two souls who would’ve been just as comfortable plying their wares a century ago. “These new songs have very old ingredients,” he says.

Ward continues to add new ingredients to his successful recipe. His last album, Post-War, contained strings, which he describes as “a new plaything,” a sound that he refined on She & Him’s Volume One, and one that comes to full fruition on Hold Time tracks like “Jailbird” and the title track. “It’s an exciting process, a little closer to how my 4-tracks made me feel,” Ward says of his learning curve for employing strings. “Like reading through bad diaries….It brings me back to a time in my life when I was first learning to play the guitar, discovering chords through trial and error.”

Hold Time maintains a tenuous balance between Ward’s old 4-track sensibility and his evolving, broadening sonic palette. To hear “To Save Me” and its huge, Brill Building expansiveness isn’t so shocking after She & Him or even 2006’s Post-War, but it would have been startling circa 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent. The glam-infused beat and guitar hook on “Never Had Nobody Like You” is held in check by the easy strum of “Jailbird” and the laid-back rockabilly of “Fisher of Man,” both of which would have been comfortable on Transfiguration or Ward’s first album, Duet With Guitars #2.

Wary of the power that strings possess—both to embellish and to ruin a song—Ward had to find equilibrium for them. “With [Hold Time], I wanted the heavy sounds to sound heavier and then balance it out with cheap sounds that you could find at a pawn shop,” he says. “I wanted to match the strings with a five-dollar guitar.” On the otherwise sparse “Hold Time,” the strings rise and fall like long, deep breaths, above a mournful piano, as Ward sings of a moment when things were perfect, but, like everything, has passed: “And I wrote this song just to remember the endless, endless summer in your laugh.” In creating such atmosphere, Ward exhibits his awareness of the weight of things, musically, lyrically, and emotionally. “It’s all about finding the right balance between light and dark, tangible and intangible,” he says.

To achieve this symmetry, Ward has pushed the boundaries of what began as a very insular sound. It’s an age-old Catch-22: change too little, and not only will it become difficult to win new fans, but old fans will chafe at buying the same record over and over again; change too much and people will lose sight of the indefinable quality that drew them to the music in the first place. Ward has managed to walk this tightrope and not look down; he has been focused and fearless about his maturation. He credits this with staying in the moment, as the title Hold Time suggests.

“The sparks that create songs are hard to understand,” he says, “but if you’re going to take one of those sparks into the studio or onto the stage and try to get a song out of it, you have to hang onto those sparks, those ideas.” Or, as he sings in the title song, as if speaking to the music, “You were beyond comprehension tonight/but I understood.”


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July 1st 2010

Happy to hear and know that Hold Time maintains a tenuous and well needed balance between Ward’s old 4 track sensibility and his evolving, broadening sonic palette. Good job with this one :)

January 10th 2011

No track on “Hold Time” will make you hold your breath like “Poison Cup” and “Chinese Translation” did, but overall, this lovely follow-up to “Post-War” might be a stronger overall album. Wonderfull lush arrangements, string parts in which a voice can happily drown, sharp turns, great atmpspherics: Mr. Ward is master in recreating the virtues of ancient recording techniques and vibes. “Rolex Submariner

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June 16th 2012

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