Review | Beyond That Is Anybody's Guess

M. Ward is a remarkably talented musician. I became a fan when I stumbled upon "Hi-Fi," a smooth and lightly breezy tune from his 2005 album, Transistor Radio. I was surprised to find that raspy deep voice belonged to a frazzy-haired opie-faced dude named Matt. I delved deeper into his back catalog and found a well of soulful blues & folk rock, all of it well-written, moving and sincere.

Then I saw him perform a special solo concert. Normally, he has a band backing him up, but on this night, it was just M. Ward, a guitar, and a loop pedal. On that night he had six fingers on each hand, because the shit he was playing was stunning. His finger picking speed and the ease of which he pulled off the complicated layering was astonishing. I often enjoy concerts, but I rarely leave an even bigger fan.

Ever since, I've never been hesitant to put M. Ward's music somewhere in my top ten, even five. His most recent album, "Post-War," solidified it with his best songs yet in "Chinese Translation," "To Go Home," and the heart-bursting "Poison Cup." He had reached a mountaintop in his last album. How do you keep the momentum going in Hold Time? This album was also the first since his success with Zoey Deschanel as the other side of the ampersand in She & Him. But he doesn't get to sing in that band. So for that wondrous bluesy croon, we go to Hold Time.

First, a word about the cover art: It's a stunning bit of graphic design. The black letters above are actualy a reflective foil, and that and the intricate swarm of moths are actually on this tight plastic sleeve, separating them from the close-up shot of some kind of floral tapestry. The thing is, you pretty much have to destroy it to open it. The sleeve can't be slid off and must be ripped, probaly at the glue line on the back. Either way, you don't get to preserve the art in its original form. A shame.

1. For Beginners - Nothing out of the ordinary here. I can already see how he'll be performing this live, seeing him looping the rhythm guitar first, cueing up the bridge. There aren't a lot of flourishes, in terms of instrumentation and lyrics. It doesn't really climax, or even pick up much speed. A very subdued hand clap comes in, but the tension is the same. Before we know it, the journey fades away and the song ends. It's a strange opener, somewhat dream-like.

2. Never Had Nobody Like You - This one has more of a rock edge. He's playing the electric guitar like a percussion and Zooey Deschanel is doing some backup vocals, but it's easy to differentiate from a She & Him song. Despite being a love song, there isn't much spotlight on the duality of the voices. It's very much just M. Ward singing to you, and it's nice.

3. Jailbird - It's a tale about a man in need, possibly on deathrow, possibly on his way to jail. Either way, he declares, "Help me, help me, help me, help me now." M. Ward has always been a storyteller, often working within folk tropes, and man-with-law-troubles is a classic. The strings here are lo-fi, almost samples, the way electro artists would use them. Always an x-factor or special ingredient to change around the way the elements work together.

4. Hold Time - The title track was the first song I heard from this album when it was released as a single with a music video. It starts with these uncharacteristic strings. I was excited -- M. Ward! With an orchestra! Who knows what beautiful sonic hurricanes would come about when these two things meet? Yet I was disappointed t find that this is the only track that sounds like this. Ward goes higher here, utilizing his formidable falsetto. The music stays out of his way, providing a solid single note background and a methodically slow tap of a beat. Some barely-there strings swell and decay and shiver. It's very moody, blues by way of foggy nights. What's great about the writing is that it cuts close: It's not about stories or philosophy like the other tracks, it's just an expressive outpouring of simple love with a dash of tragedy.

5. Rave On - It gets good a minute in, with a chorus recalls good pop hooks. Although it is certainly more upbeat, it's not quite a "rocking out" type of vibe. It's not "To Go Home" where M. Ward convinces you the only thing he can do to restrain himself from flying off the Earth is to yelp his heart out. The guitar drops out two minutes in and we get a serious echo chamber with nice responding backup vocals. It ends on a fade out, as so many of these songs have, and I wonder what's up with that.

6. To Save Me - Finally, something that sounds like it would be rocking and rolling when played live in concert. Rockabilly hinted piano with a cool pause and tumble that evoke something Spanish. Even some castanets are employed during that breakdown. Our chorus is Beatles-esque --"To save me / Just to save me / Save me from sailing over the edge." Then we get this absolutely crazy rapidfire subdued electronic synth solo that still fits in with everything and oh my god this is awesome. Chimes open up the song big, giving way to this neuron-popping technicolor landscape. It's a marvel, and probably the first great track on the album.

7. One Hundred Million Years - After that last mega-produced showcase, we scale it back to the other end of the spectrum with a purely solo track. It's simple, as all traditional folk is supposed to be, and somewhat of a mainstay of M. Ward's albums. So I'm not too down on the simplicity, but I can't help but feel like I won't remember it, especially among his other work.

8. Stars of Leo - Electric piano paired with acoustic guitar gives me an image of M. Ward letting us into an underwater kingdom. I know my image associations and attempts at synesthesia often don't make sense. Ward stops playing to sing us a story. They're pretty fun - "I get so low I need a pick-me-up / I get so high I need a bring-me-down." If you listen with headphones, when the song kicks into 2nd gear about 1:40 in, the rhythm jumps from left to right. At 2:40 M. Ward sends his vocal soaring, for the first time on the album, but it's short lived. The music is certainly well-crafted with a lot of attention paid to specific types of sounds, not just instruments and arrangement.

9. Fisher of Men - It's kind of a typical old school country song. The arrangement is really coming through here, but M. Ward doesn't seem to be reaching for epic-scale vocal performances, or bleeding heart catharsis. There is, though, one golden moment in this song about Jesus: Two minutes in, we get a break from the on-the-road-again rhythm to pay attention to the strings and words: "He put my name in his chorus / and the dark before dawn / so in my moment of weakness / I remember it's his song." With great writing like that, it makes me wonder why anyone listens to "Christian Rock" bands when there's such great faith-based songs like this out there.

10. Oh Lonesome Me - This is a well travelled Don Gibson song, covered by the likes of Johnny Cash among others. The thing is, M. Ward is doing it with Lucinda Wiliams, who has a similarly weathered voice, except it comes with some legitimacy and elegance. There something about that contrast of feminine vocals and textured, bone-tired, warbling. I recognize it from when I saw him in concert, and he built it from the ground up on his loop pedal. It was like watching a carpenter. It's slow, loneliness through lethargy, which is a classic, dusty type of atmosphere. The emotion increases several fold three minutes in when it becomes a pleading duet. If Hold Time has a timeless song on it, it's this cover.

11. Epistemology - This song starts with some spunk, some rock and roll. Ward muses on religion again, here. Raised in a catholic school, apparently. The chorus is a catchy up and down ride: "Finally I found you / Without ever learning how to / I put the right in front of the leg / And beyond that, is anybody's guess." The writing is enjoyable, but there's a not a lot of it. The chorus is used thrice and between that is a copy & pasted verse. As a song, it's a good little ditty, but there's not much to bite into.

12. Blake's View - With another deathsong added to Hold Time's arsenal, the recurring themes should be clear: Faith, God, Dying. Flirting with falsetto, we are comforted: "Death is just a door / you'll be reunited on the other side." It's not a song about mourning, but the macabre atmosphere is hard to avoid when singing about the end of life, no matter how hard you try to beat the darkness. A subdued organ holds a resonant note, M. Ward uses the qualities of his voice to invoke the feeling of wise advice.

13. Shangri-La - It begins sounding like every classic folk chord. Double-tracked voice and again, he sounds almost complacent in his singing. I guess since a lot of these are optimistic deathsongs, there's not a lot to get worked up over. Again, we talk about resting in peace: "I cannot wait to see the expression of the face of my sweet lord / No, I cannot wait to hear you call my name." It's a pretty straight shot of a folk song, although he's had better execution in recent history. It's not quite interesting enough, or moving enough, or enough of a story to hit it out of the park. It falls just short of the wall.

14. Outro - To close out the album, we venture back to blues. It's an instrumental closer, with a meandering darkness that pervades much of the song. The guitar here bleeds the blue notes, underlined by a bass with intricate timing and the decorations of a guitar. The guitar solo hits a few peaks, a xylophone and some strings join the band, and the guitar starts to growl, angry at death. But it all finishes, somewhat appropriately, on the quiet strum.

By itself, it's not a bad album. It's well written and sounds like it would be a great live jam, exemplary of the crossroads of blues and modern singer-songwriter, and it's got a couple of truly special tracks. But as a follow-up to Post-War, it's a bit of a let down. "Requiem" has more zing than all of Hold-Time, and "Poison Cup" is bigger emotionally than any of the lightweights on this album. I kept finding myself thinking, "This is alright, but not as good as To Go Home on the last album." It reads like an album to lie down and fall asleep to, or perhaps to drift quietly into the darkness to. That may have been the point, but it doesn't really feed my needs at the time. I wanted big ideas and to be swept along, and Hold Time is more about classic jamming and songs of faith.

And I wrote this song about it
'Cause I didn't care about any worthless photograph
Yeah, I wrote this song just to remember
The endless, endless summer in your laugh