IT’S SUNDAY morning. He’s slept in, and wakes up to sunshine and a headache. He picks up a guitar, presses record, and starts to sing. This is how I imagine M. Ward creates his songs: with a weary simplicity, the honesty and optimism of a lazy day.
Despite having previously released four full-length albums, the Portland troubadour reached his peak in popularity last summer on a side project. Ward joined actor-gone-singer Zooey Deschanel under the moniker She & Him to create Volume One, their debut collection, which Paste magazine selected as the best album of 2008. And while the choice may be a better indicator of a widespread celebrity-crush on Deschanel, it’s also the pinnacle of the duo’s acclaim.
Hold Time, Ward’s latest individual effort, continues his tradition of recording laconically-sung, intricately-produced pop songs. The album opens with “For Beginnings,” which beckons an early summer amidst the February doldrums. The second track and first single, “Never Had Nobody Like You,” has the simple joy of a new crush, with dirty guitars stolen from the Beatles “Revolution” and a sing-a-long Sesame Street chorus: “It’s just like A-B-C. / It’s just like 1-2-3.”
With his radio continually tuned to the oldies of the 50s and 60s greats like Roy Orbison and Hank Williams, it’s almost a given that Ward would sneak a few classic covers into his newest collection. He turns Buddy Holly’s peppy “Rave On” into a dreamy watercolor painting, with sleepy vocals and a breezy slide guitar that drifts along in the peripheral. On his cover of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” Lucinda Williams’ achy voice joins Ward in a weary, heartbroken duet that sounds straight from the bottle, with the two voices tumbling over one another.
In interviews, Ward often speaks of his need to flood every song he writes with lights and darks. He describes this lyrically on “Stars of Leo” as the percussion rolls in like a cartoon train: “I get so low I need a little pick-me-up. / I get so high I need a bring-me-down.” As if in explanation for this leveling, “Fisher of Men” follows with an answer: “He put his name in my chorus and the dark before the dawn, / so that in my time of weakness I’d remember it’s his song.” The song sounds straight from the shores of Waikiki, painting a picture of Jesus plying his trade as if he was inviting sinners to a luau. Ward’s Catholic upbringing reveals itself on this and several more tracks like “To Save Me,” a Calvinistic call for salvation amid Motown beats: “He shifts in his sleep and the earth begins to quake / So how much effort could it possibly take / to save me?”
While on most tracks, Ward’s hazy voice contrasts with his finely tuned production in a successful paradox, his finest songwriting emerges through his quiet ballads. He speaks in the gentle hush of a lover on “One Hundred Million Years,” sings a lullaby for a funeral on “Blake’s View,” and nestles under covers with the folksy “Shangri-La” before sweeping listeners to sleep with the instrumental beauty of his closing number.
On the title track, Ward expresses his wish to hold time. It’s a quest that seems to haunt the singer, who continually tries to capture the tone and feel of what he calls the golden age of music: the post-war period of the 50s and 60s. With Hold Time, an album that has the nostalgic appeal of a time capsule, he has achieved his dream—time stands still and listeners are wisped back to another era.
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