M.Ward has always been an artist who has been able to remind us of the bittersweet paradoxes of life in his work. On his 2003 breakthrough album, The Transfiguration of Vincent,Ward made an album so personal and imbued with such loss and loneliness that one’s own heart ached listening to it but at the same time, he was able to reveal both beauty and hope in his songs. In fact Ward’s music often seems to come from that rare and perfect place of a songwriter in which joy and misery are allowed to mingle, laughter follows tears and faith and doubt are able to be reconciled. His music has always revealed a beautiful truth: simple, heartfelt songs can transcend time. And indeed that truth is at play on his sixth solo release, the aptly titled, Hold Time.
Ward has been a busy guy of late. In fact his extracurricular activities, including his collaboration with Zooey Deschanel on the She & Him project and playing producer to the likes of Jenny Lewis, have made Ward’s own solo career feel more like the side project. But his latest release is too good to be that. It reveals an artist who has truly come into his own as a performer. He sounds free, more confident and more at peace. His songs remain delicate but it no longer sounds like he’s singing them with his head and shoulders slumped but rather he is an artist aware of his charm. On Hold Time Ward expands on his solo work while continuing to adhere to a few core characteristics, namely expert guitar work, short skit-like songs that emphasise atmosphere over structure and of course Ward’s distinctive, husky vocals, emphatically warm. While his music remains steeped in old-time blues and folk Americana, his expands his palette to include rocking string and synth numbers and an embracing of gospel and country music.
The brisk and buoyant strums of the opening track For Beginners is a delight and the song seems to disappear too fleetingly. In its afterglow is Nobody Like You, the first of two tracks where Ward teams up with Deschanel, but the crunchy guitars and stomp of the drums quickly separate the fun, glam-rock of this number from the tweeness of the twosome's other project. Their other track together, a cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On is nothing revelatory but its charming, soft buzz is hard to resist. The album’s title track approaches new territory for Ward, a slow burning number, shimmering with strings and keys. The track manages to be both grandiose and gentle, both a mighty and delicate declaration of love. In the loveliest of lines, Ward sings, “Yeah, I wrote this song just to remember/ the endless, endless summer in your laugh.” The line is so sincere and heartfelt that as Ward closes the song with a lovely da-da-da-da, the listener’s heart is both swooning and breaking. The song perfectly expresses the sentiment of wanting to hold or capture a perfect moment in time.
Indeed many of these tunes are premised upon the idea of timelessness and a number also have God as their subject matter but the songs never sound heavy handed, rather they are wistful, witty and touching. With its pounding piano and Beach Boys inspired refrain, To Save Me is a rocker about feeling insignificant in the presence of God. Ward sings, “He could strike a match and your world goes up in flames/ He spins a big, blue ball and the night turns into day” and thus Ward queries God in the chorus, “How much effort could it possibly take to save me?” One may take the song as tongue in cheek but a listener who knows the singer-songwriter a little better would know irony isn’t Ward’s strong suit and it is more likely he is being as earnest as ever. Borrowing from the Sunday school lessons continues on Fisher of Men which sees Ward embracing country music. This is perhaps one of the album’s blander tracks but having said that it has these lovely guitar lines which slide and dip their way over the guitar shuffle. Recalling Dead Man from Transfiguration, Blake’s View is beautifully phrased, hinting at Ward’s belief or hope in an afterlife with the lyric, “Death is just another door/ you’ll be reunited on the other side.”
The album’s quietest moment comes with Ward’s duet with Lucinda Williams, a cover of Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me. In the opening line Ward laments in a delicate drawl, “everybody’s goin’ out, havin’ fun/ I’m a fool for stayin’ home, havin’ none.” At first Williams' rough, whisky-soaked vocals seem slightly out of place but the duet reveals itself to be, like so many Ward covers, quietly stunning. Ward imbues the song with a fragility while Williams' vocals lend a credibility; both voices seep with weariness and melancholy, echoing and falling over one another. The duet is indeed heartbreaking but in a strange way, in the shadows and spaces of the song, one gets the sense that at the very least, a familiar sense of comfort can be derived from such solitude.
Hold Time is a wonderful, wistful collection of songs from an artist who has really started to hit his stride. This is the type of album which reminds you of your own mortality but not in a heavy, morbid way. On Epistemology, Ward sings “Cause I just roll and I tumble / down the long road I stumble.” And indeed many of the songs here seem to be centered around the notion that time is unstoppable and that life is a tumble toward our death but there is joy to be had. Ward’s tone is never patronising in the sense that he is telling us to live every moment like it counts but rather offering the humble truth that beauty is found in the daily blurring of life, in the simple passing of time.