M. Ward – Hold Time (4AD)
M. Ward remains irretrievably in the thrall of his influences. This has not always been the case (his earlier work on Howe Gelb’s Ow Om label, though derivative and sketchy, contained a spark and twang all his own), but the emerging status quo for recent recordings. Brian Wilson, commissioned songwriters of the 50s, railroads, Buddy Holly… a long list of fragrant and worthy wells to draw from. It’s not enough to simply prove you have exceptional taste (in the High Fidelity sense), you have to make good on those influences. All Hold Time does is confirm that M. Ward has always used these influences, and that he’s always been this good at mingling them with his own deliveries.
Hold Time necessarily makes small augmentations to the Ward frameworks we’ve become used to. It’s more expansive, a mite more ambitious and executed with more declamation than ever before. At times there’s even something of a swagger to the performances, particularly on the Bolan-esque shuffle of Never Had Nobody Like You. Its joyous simplicity shot through with lackadaisical delivery is judged well, and it was the right thing to do to make it so short, even throwaway. Elsewhere, thunderous synth arpeggios and castanets on To Save Me show buoyancy to be a key new tool. That’s not to say that Ward’s oeuvre tends toward slower tempi, rather he’s using these propulsive new sounds to reach further on this record than any of his previous outings.
Time and again, though, his influences make themselves very plainly known. Like the gorgeous Ella from his 2001 album End Of Amnesia , the Brian Wilson influence seems to permeate ‘most everything he tackles. Again, To Save Me has the requisite “do-do-doos” of The Beach Boys most iconographic works, but those “do-do-doos” feature a raised seventh that Wilson may have deemed too emotionally revealing – it’s the one that lends the wistful edge. Crucially, as we’ve established, it’s Ward’s way of extending his influences into his own work, making them come into line with what he wants to express rather than letting over-adherence cloud the results. It’s the mark of a writer who has become comfortable with his own sound, viewing it alongside the back-catalogues he admires rather than as inferior to them.
Ward’s take on Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me demonstrates a deft duality of reality and the ethereal. You can hear the scratch of the bottleneck on the guitar strings as if it were in the room, but guest Lucinda Williams’ voice is drenched in reverb and the expert string arrangements gently lift off the planet in another hazy tribute to Brian Wilson. Indeed, the fact that it’s a loose vocal duet emphasises this balancing act – humanising and impressing in equal measure.
Though the influences haven’t visibly changed, the confidence and breadth with which he deploys them has certainly gone up a notch. In short, those expecting a logical continuation of Ward’s album trajectory so far will be extremely satisfied. There’s a whole host of little surprises along the way, what with Zooey Deschanel and Jason Lytle turning up and Bella Union wunderkind Peter Broderick sorting out some of the string arrangements, but why boil it down to mere selling points? Hold Time is full of sweet intrigue and stapled shut with intimate references to Ward’s musical heritage, a bold tapestry of what he has become.
Hold Time is available now through 4AD records. An edited version of this review appears at The Quietus.