M Ward – Post-War

M Ward

Over the last few years M(att) Ward has built himself a niche role as a benevolent backroom svengali figure after only a relatively short period of time spent refining his own remarkable talents. Almost in the same way that Ward’s own early champions – namely Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Jason Lytle of Grandaddy – gave him the necessary leg-up on the leftfield Americana hierarchy, he too has shared the benefits of his growing stature with others needing a collaborative catalyst or a career boost. Which means the likes of Cat Power, Beth Orton, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis, and the compilers of the recent John Fahey tribute album I am the Resurrection, have all been lucky enough to be touched by Ward’s increasingly confident creativity. Such generosity of spirit has not, however, hampered Ward’s own musical development; far from it, as evidenced here with his fifth and most fleshed-out album to date, Post-War.

Released barely 18 months after his conceptual homage to the halcyon days of public-spirited radio broadcasting – the richly detailed Transistor Radio – this new collection feels like a substantive gear-change for Ward’s art. Whereas his previous long-players were primarily personified by their hushed beauty, dusty experimentation, and nostalgic romanticism, Post-War pushes forward a more boisterous and band-orientated vision for Ward’s sturdy songwriting. Although Ward has not entirely embraced rock, he’s certainly learned how to roll.

With its yearning swelling strings, steady drumbeat, and a swooning vocal, the opening “Poison Cup” is perhaps a red herring for the subsequent sequence of tracks, but its Scott Walker-like widescreen presentation is undoubtedly a subtle wrench away from Ward’s lo-fi trademarks. The soaring twosome of “To Go Home” (a Daniel Johnston cover) and “Right in the Head,” however, cement the core character of Post-War. The former offers a rustic treatment of The New Pornographers’ potent power-pop (reinforced by gutsy guest vocals from part-time Pornos chanteuse Neko Case), while the latter rapturously extends on the frantic vibe of “Four Hours in Washington” from Transistor Radio. Elsewhere, the blues-rock stomp of “Requiem” cross-references Neil Young at his most passionately political, replete with a suitably squealing guitar solo.

Further in, the folk-rock glide of the cherishable “Chinese Translation” imagines a lost Dylan treasure as covered by The Byrds. The even lovelier “Magic Trick” provides the biggest highlight of the whole album, resembling a raw, lo-fi, 70s Beach Boys vocal workout, not unlike something from the band’s underrated Carl & the Passions: So Tough album. No M Ward record is truly complete without at least one sublime guitar instrumental, so just over halfway through Post-War in rolls “Neptune’s Net,” a surging twangfest that stirs up the spirits of Duane Eddy, Link Wray, and Dick Dale with a delicious dexterous crunch.

Ward doesn’t entirely let the balance tip in favour of his more strident material. Hence the organ-driven title-song smoulders spookily like Nina Simone, the delicate wistful ballad “Eyes on the Prize” fits with the earlier M Ward album jigsaw puzzles, and the stunning closing track “Afterword/Rag” echoes Tom Waits at his most tender, before sliding into a flickering Fahey-flavoured finger-picked coda.

Matthew Stephen Ward has once again proved himself as an immaculate conceiver of cross-bred styles, shades, and elliptical songcraft. Moreover, Post-War delivers Ward to a place where his ability to harness both the rough and the ruminative strands of his muse should be more clearly recognised and appreciated. Roll on Post-Post-War