M. Ward Hold Time

[Merge; 2009]

Styles: alt-folk, alt-country, singer songwriter
Others: Will Oldham, Tom Waits, Howe Gelb, Hank Williams

Since his fantastic 2003 breakthrough The Transfiguration of Vincent, M. Ward has been looking for a big enough theme to animate his prodigious, old-timey talent as a songwriter. He’s run through the life of John Fahey, the glory days of radio, and life during wartime -- yet throughout, his albums have gotten progressively easier to admire than wholeheartedly love. But now he’s tackling God and mortality, and in the process he’s made his best album since Vincent.

It’s exceedingly rare for artists working within the indie sphere to acknowledge any form of mainstream Western religion in a constructive way (with the notable exception of Sufjan Stevens, who seems to hold a full deck of get-out-of-jail-free cards). Ward deserves praise from the get-go for his courage to publicly square with the Catholic tradition in which he was raised, especially in the face of a community that often seems allergic to any mentions of the fact that many of them were raised under the same or similar systems of belief. But Ward’s musical idiom also straddles a variety of influences -- from blues to country to Fahey-esque folk -- in which a reckoning with life beyond the mortal coil is indivisible from the here and now.

That doesn’t mean that facing down some God has to be a positive experience -- just that it has to be done. As Ward knows and sings here, it’s as weird, huge, frightening, and unknowable as death itself. This isn’t about dogma or the epithetic “Christian music.” Most effectively on songs like “Blake’s View,” “To Save Me,” and standout “Epistemology,” he’s talking about an intensely personal struggle with the meaning of faith, death, and the possibility of a higher power in an endlessly dying, endlessly reborn world, comparing life and its end to the choruses, verses, and hooks of song.

It also helps that this is Ward’s best-produced album to date, alternately lush and lo-fi, from the swelling strings and keys of the title track to the spongy garage rock, “Reelin’ In The Years” fuzzed-out lead guitar of “Never Had Nobody Like You,” one of two duets with his She And Him collaborator Zooey Deschanel. The other is... a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”? Huh? Here, we arrive at the weak moments that disrupt the album’s thematic unity. Ward has long had a thing for covers and collaborations, which is hardly bad in itself, but on Hold Time, more than ever, these moments detract from the business at hand. Fortunately, he and Deschanel have had plenty of time to learn how to work well with each other’s voices, but her two guest spots would have made a lot more sense on a She And Him release.

By contrast, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle is barely even there on “To Save Me,” and the album’s lugubrious low point, country standard “Oh, Lonesome Me,” is marred by Lucinda Williams’ parroting Ward’s lines like a nagging, tobacco-raspy mother. It doesn’t help that the latter stretches are twice as long as any other song here. The instrumental outro take on jazz standard “I’m A Fool To Want You,” though, brings things home with yet another demonstration of Ward’s prowess while leaving the listener to wonder about the implications of the titular “you,” whether that might be a lover, a deity or some more abstract ultimate. In any case, it’s also a reminder that the music here speaks for itself, whatever else Ward might be trying to say through it.

1. For Beginners
2. Never Had Nobody Like You
3. Jailbird
4. Hold Time
5. Rave On
6. To Save Me
7. One Hundred Million Years
8. Stars of Leo
9. Fisher of Men
10. Oh Lonesome Me
11. Epistemology
12. Blake's View
13. Shangri-La
14. Outro

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