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M. Ward - Hold Time

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Artist: M. Ward

Album: Hold Time

Label: Merge

Review date: Jan. 30, 2009


M. Ward - "Never Had Nobody Like You" (Hold Time)


M. Ward spent the last couple of years wrapping Zooey Deschanel’s simple songs in mild complication. His arrangements were the most interesting thing about (the not especially interesting) She & Him, and perhaps the acclaim for that duo got under his skin. Why spend time honing an eccentric, original voice, after all, when the world mostly wants pretty girls singing tasteful, inoffensive background music? In any case, as he returns to his own material, a bit of She’s blandness seems to have seeped over.

Hold Time, Ward’s latest batch of songs, seems slighter, happier and louder than those on 2006’s Post-War, but also distinctly complacent. There’s nothing to draw you in like that first melancholy sigh on “Poison Cup,” nothing to puzzle over like the tangled tale of “Right in the Head,” nothing as goofily revelatory as “Chinese Translation.” Instead, you get a few lucky-bastard songs about how groovy Ward feels, a couple of sad-bastard songs about what a drag it would be to die just now when things are going so well, and a whole bunch of new Testament verses (“Fisher of Men,” “Epistemology”). He’s not just in love, he’s gone all Sunday school on us… how disappointing.

The melodies seem slight, the lyrics less profound, but the arrangements are undeniably bigger, fuller and more “rock.” There’s a swaggering Gary Glitter beat kicking off “Never Had Nobody Like You” (it sounds just like “Rock ‘n Roll Part II”), and some spiraling Brian May flourishes in the interstices. “To Save Me,” the cut with Jason Lytle of Granddaddy, rollicks with bar-room piano, pounds with big drums and bursts into multi-voiced choruses. Everything but the main vox is buffed and pumped up like an ELO single; only Ward’s voice feels wrinkled, lived-in … what used to be his trademark. Where songs like Post-War’s titular track curled off like melancholy wisps of smoke, these blow your hair right back. But as a result, it’s hard to get inside them. You watch from the outside – oh, that’s nice – rather than taking them in and cogitating on them.

Not that it’s unpleasant, this record, or that it doesn’t have a couple of riveting moments. One of these is “Lonesome Me,” a slow blues-y shuffle shot through with luminous slide guitar. It’s also the duet with Lucinda Williams – Ward’s voice high and clear, Williams’ burnt down to smoldering ash. The strings are a little too slick, but everything else about this tune is beautifully, powerfully raw. One of the few unambiguously sad songs on the record, it feels truer than everything else and – despite its relatively sparse instrumentation – bigger, too. The other winner is the title track, another slow, ruminative song, this time enveloped in shimmering washes of electric keyboards and strings.

“Hold Time” is maybe the link among this album’s divergent ideas, finding unexpected melancholy right in the middle of happiness, sensing the otherworldly in the ordinary passages of life. What a shame that the rest of the album isn’t as good.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of M. Ward

Transfiguration of Vincent

Transistor Radio

Post-War

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