M. Ward | Post-War (Merge)

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Somewhere in the midst of the vacillation between the present and past, the songs become timeless.


I’ve deleted at least ten attempts to begin to say something about M. Ward’s latest offering, Post-War. Ranging from pseudo-historical stances of his revivalism to histrionic statements of his importance, all seemed too conscious of the processes at work behind that sound and that sentiment, yet none mentioned the obvious: This is easily the most confident and compelling listen from one of the most confident and compelling performers in the business. Attention has quietly increased with each release, slowly accumulating into the kind of unquestioned respect given those artists one expects to be writing about in 20 years. Critics casually slipped both Transistor Radio and The Transfiguration of Vincent into numerous top-ten lists; he’s name checked-by everyone from Conor Oberst to Neko Case; and now the buzz has seemingly caught up with the admiration of his peers.

Post-War is Ward’s first with a full band, and the crackle of the interplay is evident throughout. The rollicking music sounds like rock ’n’ roll did before it had a name, when it was little more than an unconscious expression of unrest. The title carries echoes of post-WWII roots music as much as it does our current political landscape. Ward’s AM dial-scanning didn’t end with 2005’s Transistor Radio. The buzzy leads of “Right in the Head” and the saccharine strings of opener “Poison Cup” sound sampled from some Platonic version of early ’50s Americana. Don’t be misled by my ramblings, though—this album is more relevant than whatever week’s newest Bush-baiting indie release; it just looks to the past before moving into an uncertain future.

Somewhere in the midst of the vacillation between the present and past, the songs become timeless. On “Chinese Translation,” Ward spins a tale embedded with a mythical sense of time. He begins the song “I sailed the wild, wild sea/Climbed a tall, tall mountain/I met an old, old man beneath the weeping willow tree,” inhabiting the wandering troubadour persona as effortlessly as the wind picks up sound in the summer air. He enters the song so completely, I barely noticed that the final two minutes are instrumental, rendering words wholly unnecessary.

The tranquility of the title track reinforces the arc of the album. It is far from a song-cycle, yet the album has a recurring theme of return to a world that has moved on. As Ward sings, “Don’t they love you in mysterious ways?/You say ‘yeah, but this is now and that was then,’” the listener hears the irresistible gravity of looking to the past for comfort in his mournful voice. Skeletal, yet overflowing, the disc’s an elegant elegy and half-remembered hope. Post-War covers too much territory for a grand summation and easy affirmation, but be assured that few albums this year will achieve the mastery of its craft so eloquently.

RIYL: Devandra Banhart, Rocky Votolato, Will Oldham

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