M. Ward

Duet For Guitars #2 Reissue

(Ow-Om/Merge; 2000/2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 10 January 2008

The strangest and potentially most upsetting revelation about M. Ward's debut album -- finally reissued with three bonus tracks by Merge after a number of short-lived/sighted "issues" since its genesis in 1999 and release on Howe Gelb's label in 2000 -- is that despite eight years and half as many full-lengths, Ward has not seemed to change much. The songs are still mostly drumless, retaining the mystic solace of a small, empty room. His voice was and still is a plangent concoction of grit and melodrama; his lyrics were and still are sappy, nostalgic, but unmistakably leaden with the malaise of frustration, with the kind of ennui that seems to watch seconds double and shrink in equally frustrating lapses of boredom. He was and still is an insomniac: be it the gothic roots of "Four Hours in Washington" from Transistor Radio (2005) or the strange falsetto of "Scene From #12," an amazing song to find in the songwriter's playlist (from a now out-of-print EP of the same name), mostly because it sounds like something written by Davey VonBohlen while carrying the devious mise-en-scene of some coughing man in an abutting apartment. Ward sings, "I think he knows I can hear him night and day / I think he knows I cannot live this way / I think he knows that I ain't sleeping" and repeats the last phrase without rest. Exhaustion, I think, must be what motivates him. He's tired by heartbreak, memory, and maybe love; that sweating tension permeates his eyes, his deft but sloppy-by-proxy finger-picking, not to mention his language.

But so goes the quest for sleep, shouldering the broadest implications for a man devoid of rest. Simply put, there's his pathos and there's his oeuvre, and if M. Ward's career has been anything -- besides an exceptionally competent musician carving his effortless roots music into melodies less and less forgiving -- M. Ward's career has been surprisingly prescient (or predictably stagnant, depending on how much you've taken to Damien Jurado's shark-jumping). The benefit of a reissue, right, one that's played the rounds before: each of Ward's records, from End of Amnesia (2001) through the calmly harrowing Transfiguration of Vincent (2003) and the reluctantly celebratory Post-War (2006) have been -- in hindsight, sure -- logical chapters for a musician hunkered over the "disasters" of the quotidian. Perhaps Duet For Guitars is his most plain-faced and by extension his untrained masterpiece, but how could a collection of songs so diligently unassuming, so demo-like but so clean, mark the first round for a blues/folk musician seemingly built from the ground up (or from the sky down) by pain?

He's not the first, for sure, and whenever he gets over all this shit he won't be the last. We'll safely call his genre Americana, and it's called that because it's got a nation of ache behind it; Ward is knowingly one of many, one cell in the pulsing vein that branches homeless arboretums throughout some apple pie and mosquito'd Nowhere. "The Crooked Spine" and both "Duet For Guitar" suites work out incomplete motifs that even with grace and posture maintain a ceaseless course; "Look Me Over" high-tails it south, loud and industrious, but Ward can only admit, "Friends won't let a guy sleep on their couches / When word comes down he stains all he touches"; "Who May Be Lazy" and "He Asked Me To Be a Snake and Live Underground" hide whispers of gospel, voices that counter with lackadaisical harmonies, stuff that feels right and rightly warm but ultimately settles in pieces.

Call Ward a genius for filling in the gaps, puzzling out the whole over the course of continuously great but overtly incomplete albums. Or call him frustrating for using a patchworked grace as an excuse for big amateur holes. Call him obvious. Monotonous, maybe. Still, find me someone so harmless and heartbreaking, so equally raw and gentle, and I'll put you to sleep with a long story, one longer than whatever you've got, ambiguous and incomplete lording over that finished splendor you're serving palm up.