Friday, February 20, 2009

Hold Your Horses...

M Ward - Hold Time (4AD, 2009)

Reviewing records is a difficult business sometimes, and as this blog is very much a labour of love, I don’t even get the satisfaction of financial remuneration. Partially for that reason I prefer my writing here not to focus too much on carping and negativity. But I also want to write about this new M Ward album and all the reservations I have with it, in much the same way as I wanted to write about My Morning Jacket’s ‘Evil Urges’ or Spiritualized’s ‘Songs in A & E’.

I’ve so far liked pretty much everything Matt Ward has produced, from his John Fahey-inspired works for guitars to his brilliant conceptual pop albums ‘Transfiguration of Vincent’ and ‘Transistor Radio’, the latter a particular favourite. His more recent albums have seen him move arguably in a more conventional direction. This has been unproblematic though given his complete mastery of the pop song form. Last year’s collaboration with actress and singer Zooey Deschanel was as straightforward and reverential a record as he has yet produced, but the songs were suitably infectious and charming. So why am I struggling so much with ‘Hold Time’, a record that in many ways feels like a natural progression from ‘Post War’ and the She & Him album and which some writers are proclaiming as his best work to date?

Everything about ‘Hold Time’, from its syrupy sound to its handsome packaging, seems like an attempt by Ward to broaden his audience. In principle, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this of course. Who could resent a musician of such quality filling larger concert halls or actually selling some records? Nevertheless, it ought to be possible for this to happen without Ward sacrificing too many of his idiosyncratic qualities. Almost every track on ‘Hold Time’ seems to present a reduced, watered-down version of Ward’s characteristic timeless songcraft. Where once his writing sounded effortless, it now begins to sound more like pastiche. Sometimes these weaker facsimiles of his signature style are bolstered with saccharine strings, as it to hide the rather transparent weaknesses in the songs. The bizarre addition of echo-laden glam rock drums on a handful of tracks also feels like a conspicuous error of judgement.

Some of these songs are undeniably pretty (‘One Hundred Million Years’, the nimble shuffle of ‘Fisher of Men’, the jaunty single ‘Never Had Nobody Like You’) but none appear to be all that memorable or affecting. Somewhat unexpectedly, if there’s a connecting theme to this record it appears to be one of born again Christianity. Again, I don’t have a particular problem with this – but it would be good if the delivery of the songs could match the gospel fervour of some of the song’s themes. Instead, Ward mostly sounds comfortable, laconic, sometimes even detached. This is particularly noticeable on the light, bland strum of the opener ‘For Beginners’.

I’ve not taken issue with his voice before, even though he’s never been a technically gifted singer. Yet the use of the same old-timey microphone effect on every song here has possibly now become a repetitive and lazy trope. So much of ‘Hold Time’ sounds insincere or ironic but Ward’s obvious love of classic pop suggests this isn’t intentional at all.

Even in areas where he was once supremely assured, Ward can now be found floundering. His interpretations of the songs of others often imbued them with mystery or strangeness, particularly that fine version of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. The ghastly, protracted and painful-for-all-the-wrong-reasons duet with Lucinda Williams on Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ may be the worst thing he’s recorded. Lucinda’s usually convincing grittiness somehow sounds forced and affected in this context, and the string arrangement is horrendous. He makes a more conscious attempt to reinvent his source material with the take on Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’ but it’s something of a failure nonetheless. By lobotomising the song’s energy and impetus, it ends up occupying a fairly meaningless limbo. It’s too lightly swinging to be melancholy, but not vibrant enough to be celebratory. It’s the sort of thing which would work marvellously in Susanna Wallumrod’s hands – she would have transformed it into something unbearably sad. Ward just renders it emotionless.

The point of comparison that keeps creeping into my mind is Lambchop’s ‘Aw C’Mon/No, You Come On’ double set, where some decent songs were smothered in arrangements that too frequently had more schmaltz than soul. In Ward’s case, things pick up considerably towards the end of the album when he abandons the lavishness and opts for something more fundamental – ‘Epistemology’ has a driving rhythm, whilst ‘Shangri-La’ is appealing in its dustiness. It’s arguably too little too late though.

For the all the effort to spruce up the sound, ‘Hold Time’ ends up sounding like a musical shrug. There’s a dispassionate distance and aloofness to many of these songs. Where critical reservations have been expressed about this album, they have focussed on the transparent lack of Ward’s dexterous, quirky guitar playing. I don’t think this is the main problem, as that had already started to be pushed into the background on ‘Post War’. There’s something else missing – something less tangible but much more significant - an allure, a sense of mystery or palpable emotion. It’s somehow very dry and unmoving.

Are there any other M Ward admirers feeling the same way about ‘Hold Time’? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the Comments field below!

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