M. Ward

Hold Time

(Merge; 2009)

By Dom Sinacola | 13 March 2009

If Post-War (2006) lived up to its name and collected Matt Ward’s war buddies to shake up and play with the romanticism and sobriety of his previous work, then, three years later with Hold Time, nothing’s changed. It’s a sad record—uninteresting when it’s stagnant, pretty when it’s overfull of unrequited emotion, and dourer than it wants to be because, well, this is M. Ward. The longest song here by a fat wandering mile is a creaky cover of “Oh Lonesome Me” with Lucinda Williams that continues to sound as sad and old as its predecessors, hinging on the scabrous lines, “I bet she’s not like me / She’s out and fancy free / Dancing with all the boys with all their charms / Oh, but I still love her so.” But the record’s also mildly playful, especially when Zooey Deschanel shows up, as she’s undoubtedly bound, to scoop into and gurgle every goddamned adorable syllable. “Rave On,” another cover of a song from 1958 (probably a coincidence), wouldn’t traipse as believably as it does through sloppy seconds if it weren’t for her bullfrog greetings to the gloaming of Ward’s voice. No, Ward’s sixth solo LP is just wonderfully, distressingly familiar—something pretty decent, though expected, from a guy who’s done pretty fucking heartrending before. Such is heavy-lidded prolificacy.

No surprise that with fourteen tracks Ward’s leaning again on concept and execution over conceiving each song as a singular taste. His tracklists wind through the clockwork malaise of his fascination with AM radio, with the roots of pop, country, and folk, attempting to conjure the same transformative but broad feelings he first found scouring his transistor dial long before he ever picked up a guitar. But Transfiguration of Vincent (2004) was the first time he paused in championing the past, when he finally tapped into something deeply arresting about his obsession with heroes and history and the obsolete mediums that conveyed their art: here was a record that felt like homage but spoke like a eulogy, dripping with pain. For once there sat, squat and unimpressed, the admission of just how much it hurts to remember all the time. Which is where Hold Time comes in and lies down—more than just an emulation of heroes and histories now referred to by his chief demographic as alien or, more appropriately, old-timey, this new LP (and, really, Ward’s whole internal mechanism at this point) is geared toward the act of remembering, but not much more, like the artist’s become so used to pining that he flat out forgot what he was pining for.

I mean, it’s in the name, this possibly unintended mix-up between stagnation and, uh, carpe diem. The contentment is palpable, a fine state to be in, I guess, at a time when such feelings generally escape us. “Stars of Leo” grasps tightly to an organ bounce and snare build, which feels just as right as “Jailbird”’s flagging pace; just as comfortable as Peter Broderick’s string arrangements with Ward’s sometimes spongy, sometimes spry guitar picking, wafting warmer mists to “Fisher of Men” or aggrandizing the choked-up plod of the title track. In fact, every second of Hold Time is aggrandized, haloed in production rich, dark brown, and wheaty, as tactile as the cover art could be, butterfly nets brandished. The tone of the record, despite the author’s best intentions, is optimistic, at least to the extent that he’s accepted the ice block of his artistic aspirations. But far from ruffled or startling, Hold Time simply fills the quota Ward’s assigned himself and, (im)properly slaked, poofs off, contrails the last reminder that, yes, Jason Lytle’s still alive.

:: myspace.com/mward