M. Ward and the American Songbook

The career M. Ward carved out for himself over the course of 12 solo albums and a few high-profile collaborations is notable for its duration and its quiet ubiquity. The Oregon native seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. His best songs sound at once comfortingly familiar and beamed in from a pirate radio station broadcasting from a cornfield in unincorporated territory. With his most recent record, Ward completed a solo journey through music mythology that started as a reinvention of one version of the American songbook and ended with a much more literal approach in which both his earlier spirit and that of the original material appears to have slipped through his fingers.

American Primitive

Duet for Guitars #2

Ward arrived on the indie rock scene with the shadow of John Fahey close behind him. On his first three records, Duet for Guitars #2 (1999), End of Amnesia (2001), and Transfiguration of Vincent (2003), much of the music hearkens back to Fahey’s essential guitar work, as well as that of Robbie Basho. The pictures Ward attempted to paint with his music were so insistently pastoral that Transfiguration begins with the sound of crickets, which goes on to hold the beat through the instrumental “Transfiguration #1.” In weaving his tunes through this landscape, Ward often leaned toward the mysticism of his forbears.

While this early trilogy eventually included more upbeat numbers, these always seem to serve mostly as counterpoint to introspective slower numbers or gentle instrumentals. Quiet was such a characteristic of the music that Ward even used silence as a theme: “When the phone has lost its bell / And the doorbell has lost its sound / You’re only hearing your heart pound / It’s involuntary.” While these songs often threaten to evaporate into the foggy past from which they seemed to emerge, Ward’s reputation grew. By 2003, he was signed to Merge Records, which the next year would release the album that showed the revitalized power of independent labels, Arcade Fire’s Funeral.

American Idol

Ward’s musical transformation began soon after his deal with Merge, with the 2005 release of Transistor Radio. While the music on the record, along with Post-War (2006), Hold Time (2009), and A Wasteland Companion (2012), is unmistakably Ward’s, his narrow lens, to this point focused on his inner life and circle of friends, widens to take on American intervention in the Middle East, the hero’s journey, and quasi-religious mysticism. While the roots of his work were always on display, he built a rich musical foundation for storytelling that contained a seductive mythology.

Ward’s transformation in this period is captured in two performances that serve as bookends. In September 2006, Ward played the small stage at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. The slide guitar genius Elmore James played over the PA before and after the set, reinforcing the perception of Ward as an American original. Coincidentally, James is often remembered for his version of “Cross Road Blues,” in which the song’s originator, Robert Johnson, was thought to have revealed the location where he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar. Though the music made by Ward and his quartet leapt out of the speakers that night, Ward himself resolutely shunned the spotlight. He kept the brim of his baseball hat over his eyes and barely acknowledged the crowd. If you didn’t know before entering the club whose name was on the marquee, nothing that happened that night would have answered the question.

Zooey and M Ward

By the time he took the stage at Philadelphia’s stunning luggage storage building turned music hall Union Transfer in May 2012, however, Ward’s stage presence had blossomed into that of an impossibly and improbably suave master of ceremonies. Ward prowled the stage in a tailored suit, commanding attention. His guitar playing was equally masterful. The combination of style and substance bowled over the crowd. In a town known for raucous and creatively expressive audiences, the respect this one showed was almost eerie. The precision of the musicianship on display was just that good. Ward’s newfound ability to cast a spell over his listeners seemed almost supernatural. It was as if he had made a deal with the devil himself.

Perhaps he had. In the same years as he produces these career highlights, Ward paired with actress Zooey Deschanel for a series of somewhat charming yet backwards-looking records under the moniker She & Him. This Hollywood handshake, however, meant the initial success of the project would create a beast that would have to be continuously fed. She & Him churned out six albums of cute cover tunes in only eight years. Two of them were Christmas records. Perhaps this was the true signal that Ward had begun confusing American history with histrionics.

American Tragedy

The spiritual sacrifices Ward made did not translate into greater success for his solo career. More Rain, his 2016 follow-up to A Wasteland Companion, charted on Billboard at 128 and marks the last of his solo albums to hit the Billboard 200. Though chart position is a measure of sales, not quality or integrity, it serves to help us understand the inroads an artist is making into the consciousness of the music-buying public. Artists who get a taste of such attention may, understandably, miss it when it slips away.

Ward appears to have stewed on that as he prepared his next record, the acidly titled What a Wonderful Industry, with its equally barbed cover photograph of a massive set of shark’s teeth. Ward recorded the album himself, he said, to avoid negotiating with record company executives over the character assassinations he commits in several songs. He likens his former manager to a tiger shark in disguise to hide “where the bald beast with the big teeth ends / and the businessman begins.” In another, Ward describes the career of singer Poor Tom, who lives on “beans and rice” and whose gigs are undermined by disc jockeys who mangle their times and places.

Whether disillusionment or hope of grabbing another brass ring inspired Ward, in late 2020 he released his second record of the year. Think of Spring is a reworking of Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Of the 12 tunes on the original, 10 are included on Ward’s version, though in a different running order, and “All the Way” is added. On paper, the gravel of Ward’s voice and his delicate way with a song suggest that this pairing could be interesting. Unfortunately, the result is the opposite. Ward’s playing on all but one song are slight variations on the same circular guitar part. In that one outlier, album-closer “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a gently picked part hints at what might have been. Ward’s stubborn abandonment of the tasteful string parts and broad sonic palette that distinguish his best-crafted records is something of a mystery that is deepened by the reliance of his source material on lush strings. Though Lady in Satin’s songs are among some of the Great American Songbook’s most beautiful constructs, the instrumentation under Billie Holiday’s wizened voice elevates them. On Think of Spring, Ward seems to think they can stand entirely on their own.

M. Ward’s story is an unusual one. It begins in the thrall of chapters of American musical history written by outsiders who made primitive-feeling music, it has been suggested, as the only way to satisfy their internal demons. When the path of his career took some unexpected turns, however, Ward picked up the classic version of the Great American Songbook, the one written by equally inspired but smugly sophisticated artists who enjoyed great acclaim from all quarters. In so doing, M. Ward appears to have abandoned the ghosts that inspired him and to have been abandoned by those he now chases. Thankfully, this ill-fated journey through America’s musical hall of mirrors has left listeners with some gorgeous records along the way.

Guest written by friend, colleague and fellow music lover, Kevin DeBell

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