Asleep in Portland

By Aaron Brown

With all the fanfare
that usually accompanies those obnoxious top ten albums of the last
year lists, I was surprised to see that hardly anyone in December
noted the release of M. Ward’s most recent album, Post-War. Thus, I
decided that it was only fair and just that I write an appreciation
to the most surprisingly underappreciated album of the previous year.

Born Matt Ward, the
Portland-based singer-songwriter has been quietly making a name for
himself with previous releases Transistor Radio (2005) and
Transfiguration of Vincent (2003) on Merge Records. 2006’s Post-War
is the blossoming and realization of a new talent that is waiting to
be discovered by pretentious Macalester acoustic rockers (if they
haven’t already done so).

It’s difficult to
give a description of Ward’s sound, one that truly encapsulates the
ingenuity and originality of his style. The beauty of Post-War
directly stems from what I can only call its complicated simplicity;
despite the combinations of folk, country, bluegrass and
Wilco-meets-Brian Wilson pop that shape the ups and downs of the
album, the overwhelmingly straightforward allure of the
guy-with-an-acoustic-guitar persona makes this album arguably one of
the least appreciated of the last year. I close my eyes, and suddenly
I’m sitting in an old, musty house with sunshine pouring through
the windows on a lazy, introspective Tuesday afternoon.

And his voice! Oh
Lord, his voice. Ward’s sandpapery vocals range widely from
powerfully rumbling and roaring on tracks such as “Requiem” and
“Poison Cup” to strangely soothing and intoxicating on songs
“Eyes on the Prize” and “Chinese Translation.” As he’s
quoted in his Merge Records biography, “I started recording in
my parents’ house when I was 16 and, not wanting to wake anybody up,
you just start to sing quieter and play quieter. I think that’s why
my voice is so messed up. People who only know the records think I’m
really old or from the South.” To accompany his raspy,
does-he-smoke-cigarettes voice (he doesn’t) are M. Ward’s
notoriously vague lyrics. Depending on who you ask, the war that
adorns the title of the album is internal, romantic, or even a
commentary on current geopolitics. Ward generally refuses to comment
on the nature and meanings of his songs, usually noting that fans’
interpretations are more interesting. The title track, however, is
more explicit; M. Ward dreamily swoons “Say the money just ain’t
what it used to be/Man how we used to tear apart this town/Put a
dollar into the machine and you’ll remember how.” The imagery of
his tough luck lyrics combined with his rugged voice draw the
listener into a realm of old sepia photographs of times past. Diehard
music aficionados will recognize My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on
backup vocals on “Chinese Translation” and Neko Case backing him
up on his cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home.”
If you are looking for
a glimpse into the brilliance and charm of M. Ward’s sleepy ways,
I’d point you in the direction of The Current’s radio interview
from last September
(http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/09/05/m_ward/).

The interview threatened to overdo Ward’s laid-back, West Coast
slacker-fresh-out-of-bed vibe; he has difficulty keeping pace in the
interview with the deejay and speaks with a hesitated hush. But then
again, considering how his music is so effective at touching some
sort of subconscious nerve, that’s what’s to love.