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M. Ward - Post-War

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Artist: M. Ward

Album: Post-War

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 6, 2006

The title cut of M. Ward's fifth full-length starts in a hushed, melancholy way, building like smoke out of brushed snares and choked hi-hat chinks, a luminous keyboard line the only melodic element. Over this quietly riveting background, comes the voice, thoughtful and smoky at the corners, sepia-toned, belonging somehow to a man much older than the 31-year-old Matt Ward. It floats over the arrangements, sighed almost rather than sung and running unhurried over the words. His phrasings are natural as conversation, as if he just thought of the words, maybe while he was singing. And yet there is nothing accidental about this wonderful album. It is a very polished and professional piece of work minimally-arranged ballads burnished to perfection and all-out rockers at peace with each other's contradictory aesthetics.

Post-War's main theme is just what the album title suggests: the aftermath of the current conflict in Iraq, particularly the men and women who are now returning, altered in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. You might imagine, then, that the record would be a somber affair, and there's certainly a fair amount of darkness hidden in these well-considered and musicianly tracks. But at its core, this is not a downer. Instead, it is about damaged joy, about vets returning home with ghosts in their heads and loves that can't quite be picked up where they were left, and yet who harbor some sort of irrepressible ecstasy. "What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart? / And how can a man like me remain in the light?" asks the ruined protagonist of "Chinese Translation," but the shuffling guitars and snare-brushed drums suggest reasons for optimism. "Right in the Head," an intricately plotted blues rampage in which an older damaged brother worries about his younger sibling might easily turn tragic, yet its boot-on-the-floor rhythm and spiraling fuzz-guitar solos supply a contradictory happiness.

Who better, then, to cover than Daniel Johnston, whose songs are all about simple joys viewed from a deeply flawed perspective? Ward's version of "To Go Home" is an early-album highlight, and even downbeat sentiments like "God it's great to be alive / Takes the skin right off my hide / To think I'll have to give it up / Some day" can't alter the fundamental exuberance. Its joy pounds through in double-drum fills (that's Rachel Blumberg of the Decemberists and Jordan Hudson from the Thermals) and pop radio harmonies (the very busy, always welcome Neko Case). Later, with Jim James of My Morning Jacket in tow, Ward again attempts unbridled joy in "Magic Trick," an old-fashioned sing-along built around the observation, "She's got one magic trick...she disappears." The "live audience" effects are a little annoying here, but even the sense of being manipulated into having a good time can't obscure the fact that you are, in fact, having a good time.

Ward is an exceptionally-skilled and knowledgeable guitar player he organized this year's Fahey tribute I Am the Resurrection but he keeps the pyrotechnics to a minimum. There's some very nice finger picking on "Chinese Translation" and a viscous 1970s-sweet electric interlude (think Thin Lizzy or Queen) at the tail end of "Requiem." The two instrumentals "Neptune's Net" and the closing "Afterword/Rag" provide scope for a variety of traditional and rockier guitar sounds. But, primarily, the guitar playing stays in a support role, excellent but subdued in the crevices of the songs.

There's a bit of Starbucks gloss to this record, a too-easy-to-like quality that may at first put off serious listeners and music heads. That evaporates pretty quickly, though, as you recognize that its lucid simplicity, its artful artlessness is not a trick, but achievement. This is going to be one of the year's best singer-songwriter albums.

By Jennifer Kelly

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