4 out of 5 stars
M. Ward could be one of the best pure songwriters under 40 in the business today. When he hasn’t been teaming up with the disgustingly cute actress-turned-songstress Zooey Deschanel under the moniker She & Him (and subsequently crafting an endlessly charming album heralded by Paste as the Best Album of 2008), the Oregonian has been delivering his own brand of indie-minded folk music with unprecedented consistency.
Staking his reputation on his ability to fashion songs that are built to stand by themselves — complete with structures, lyrics, progressions and melodies that are brilliantly effective with nary a hint of studio refinement — the man is a songwriter’s songwriter. In an age of mind-boggling digital effects and note-by-note timing and pitch corrections, he’s part of a rare breed that gives priority to the song, not the producer. Fortunately for all those music purists out there, his newest effort, Hold Time, doesn’t deviate in quality or philosophy.
Somebody alert Wes Anderson to album opener “For Beginners.” A kickback to the Kinks at their folkiest, it’s a song best described as a ditty. But what a ditty; beautiful in its simplicity and yet extremely communicative, it’s a perfect introduction to an album full of moving economy.
Considering Ward’s success with Deschanel, it’s hardly surprising that the pair once again joins forces on “Never Had Nobody Like You.” Over gritty distortion and the occasional well-placed blues lick, they harmonize like they’ve been working together for decades. Apart from being a demonstration of M. Ward’s melody-crafting chops, the track is proof that the duo’s chemistry goes well beyond the She & Him name.
As far as guest stars go, though, Lucinda Williams has to be the highlight. She lends her countrified rasp to M. Ward’s cover of the Don Gibson classic “Oh Lonesome Me.” Their treatment of the tune is more haunting than the 1958 original, with passion spilling from each gentle, creaking strain. Plus, Williams just plain owns with her emotionally stirring vocal performance.
The choice to update the Sonny West-penned, Buddy Holly-performed “Rave On” reveals Ward’s soft spot for pre-Beatles pop music. Between his selection of ’50s covers and apparent lack of modern influences, it makes you wonder if this guy has even heard of Rubber Soul. Still, the façade contributes to his casual aura of timelessness, which, among other things, keeps his work honest and resonant — just the way he likes it.
Lyrically, M. Ward runs the entire gamut of love: heartbreak, the puppy variety and even the I-haven’t-been-the-same-since-I-first-laid-eyes-on-you type. But the most represented is the more specific and spiritual sort. That is, of course, pure unadulterated Christian love.
“Epistemology” details Ward’s own religious enlightenment and reveals his struggles growing up in Catholic School. In “Fisher of Men,” besides uttering a mildly puzzling simile (“as wise as a prizefighter”?), Ward pays homage to Jesus and his ability to convert the misguided. When he pleads “save me from sailing over the edge” in “To Save Me,” it’s pretty obvious he’s not calling out to Batman. Still, it’s this palpable honesty that helps break down the conventional listener-artist barrier and establishes a more intimate connection.
As the beautiful and vaguely Caribbean instrumental “Outro” draws to a close, the concept of time may feel a little disorienting. M. Ward’s fascinating Hold Time puts the trends and attitudes of a particular era aside and delivers a collection of impassioned, ageless tunes. For some, it may take a couple spins to really appreciate, but dedicated listeners will be more than rewarded for their patience. Oh, and like the records in grandma’s basement, don’t forget to blow the dust off beforehand.