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Music Review: M.Ward – Hold Time

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M.Ward has always had a penchant for older music. Claiming his favorite song is the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” his albums have always had a certain AM radio vibe to them, and his collaboration last year with Zooey Deschanel as She&Him was as great a throwback to sunny 1960s pop and country as we’ve heard in recent years.

However, the last time we heard from M.Ward on a solo album, 2006s Post-War, he had his mind set on the future as he was crafting a set of songs to be used and sung after the War in Iraq. While we are still waiting to be able to spin Post-War as it was intended, M.Ward has given us a new album, Hold Time, which points us backward in time, both with its AM radio folk-rock and its lyrics which take us all the way back to the Garden of Eden in the opening track.

So effective is Ward in this back-in-time movement that Hold Time feels stuck in time and timeless at the same time. Though released in 2009, it sounds as though it could just as easily been released any time in the last several decades. And The Garden of Eden is not the only biblical reference found here. Ward drops them all over the place in this record including references to the Apostle Paul, Mount Zion, and a song about the “Fisher of Men.”

Whether these references are indicative of a personal faith in Ward or not is difficult to tell but it does provide Hold Time with a certain context, a certain language that makes its timelessness all the more believable. This religious lingo sounds somewhat out of place in 21st century pop music but it builds a nostalgic feel to the record that provides a breath of fresh air to the arid wastelands of many of 2009s releases.

Ward wades in the same musical pools that he has on his last few records with his nearly perfected sunny pop folk and warm country. Nearly all of these songs are built around Ward’s twangy acoustic guitar with an electric lead chugging alongside it. Hold Time hangs together as a single unit, like it was written as an album rather than a collection of songs – yet another tradition of a bygone era. In fact, the only song that doesn’t stylistically fit in here is the title track.

“Hold Time” is a three-minute song built on a bed of strings, a dreamy guitar line, and a soft beat. When listening to the record straight through this is always the song that stands out the most. This is certainly intentional as the song cuts right to the heart of the record concerning Ward’s desire to hold time (”If only I could hold time, hold time, hold time”) and the struggle with the ever-moving nature of time itself. As good as the songs on this record are (and there are some good ones: “Never Had Nobody like You,” “To Save Me,” “One Hundred Million Years,” and “Epistemology”), “Hold Time” easily rises above the rest as one of the best songs ever to come from Ward's pen.

But M.Ward’s not going the distance alone here, he brings in plenty of help including a couple of tracks with She&Him partner, Zooey Deschanel, and one a piece with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Lucinda Williams. Williams and Ward share a interesting duet on “Oh, Lonesome Me” as his smooth baritone and her gravelly alto sing in harmony. Their voices complement each other well in a fascinating way, but for some reason this song just doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped. It doesn’t play to Williams’ strengths quite so well. She’s better on barroom rockers than contemplative ballads.

Hold Time is definitely an achievement for M.Ward, but whether it surpasses his brilliant Post-War is difficult to determine. These records seem to be two sides of the same coin – one looking toward the future while the other is completely lost in the past; astonishingly, Ward uses the same classic California pop ingredients to achieve both ends. This along with everything else about Hold Time prove that M.Ward is a craftsman of immense talent and one of the best new songwriters to emerge this decade. You certainly can’t blame him for wanting to hang on to this moment as long as he can.

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About Gavin Breeden