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Music Review: M. Ward – Post-War

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There are some artists who strictly defy genres. Think of Roy Orbison. Yes, he was one of the famed artists on Sun Records, but what was he really? Was he rockabilly? Pop? Country? Easy Listening? In my mind, the closest term to describe Roy Orbison's music is the one Bob Dylan coined for him: "cowboy opera." Orbison's voice was a river of silk floating through the grit and dry heat cacti. And while I know that M. Ward is no Roy Orbison (although he did a more than fair job taking Orbison's place on Jenny Lewis' cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care" this year), there is a similar feeling to both men's music.

Ward's songs travel through the soundscape of the southwestern United States without conforming to country values, indie values, or Tex-Mex guitar values; they exist soundly and squarely on their own terms. As a singer, he may not fall into the modes of theatricality as often as Orbison, but brittle emotion still reigns at the core of each track on Post-War.

While I mentioned that there is a western feel to this album, it may not be distinguishable to most listeners. There are few common "western elements" to be heard on Post-War — although, admittedly, tracks such as "Requiem" and "Chinese Translation" would sorely beg to differ. What there are, instead, are many smaller moments throughout the record, which (much like the mythical American West itself) are bigger than speakers, headphones, living rooms, or LPs. These moments feel as wide and open as walking through fields, catching your breath as the wind streams past a moving train, and the squinty feeling of trying to remember the exact color of mountains, plains, and soil. Just listen to the title track: there is a strange, evocative late-night silence captured between its musical notes, leading the song to transcend its humble medium and blossom into a full-fledged experience.

Indeed, Post-War has an oddly larger-than-life, mythical quality to it from beginning to end, not akin to the narcissistic Greek Gods, but more in step with the often ignored American Tall Tales. Characters and feelings sweep through this album that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the John Henrys, Paul Bunyans, and Calamity Janes of renown. The songs are real people, with exaggerated flaws which are both repulsive and desirous ("Magic Trick"); they are epic soundscapes which can stir the imagination with little prodding (the neo-surf feel of "Neptune's Net," which made this reviewer want to buy a boogie board and seek out a pet dolphin); and they are moments which are infinitely relatable, despite any grandeur or poetry flung at its core ("Right in the Head").

There may be records which are more glitzy, glamourous, and initially more exciting than Post-War, but there are few which are so comfortably sculpted. What's more, this is not a record for people who wish to be challenged strictly within the confines of its style, but more for those in search of inspiration that transcends trends and genres. Luckily for us, though, that kind of inspiration just happens to be M. Ward's specialty.

Reviewed by Megan Giddings

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  • This article has been placed at the Advance.net websites, a site affiliated with about 12 newspapers.

    One such site is here.

  • Brandon

    This isn”t an attack, I just want to make a correction.
    Matt did n’t take Roy Orbison’s place on Handle With Care…Ben Gibbard did. Matt took Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan’s place.