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M. Ward - Transfiguration of Vincent

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Artist: M. Ward

Album: Transfiguration of Vincent

Label: Merge

Review date: May. 5, 2003

Timeless, in all senses

Mythology has a strange power to reinvent itself constantly. Its characters are broadly drawn archetypes and its dramatic action takes place in a sort of pre-anything non-time, and it's exactly this formlessness that allows stories older than written history to stay relevant each time humanity burns another temporal bridge. It's also very likely why M. Ward's music is enchanting in such an inexplicable way: his third (or fourth) full-length, Transfiguration of Vincent, doesn't seem to belong to any particular time. The lyrics teem with kittens and killer whales, lovelorn fools and dying heroes, the instrumentation sounds neither modern nor overly antiquated, and lord knows the songs themselves could have been around for generations.

The first thing you hear is crickets. To the extent that you can imagine M. Ward sitting at a campfire somewhere in the middle of the eternal summer night, staring down at his guitar and ignoring everything else, they offer the perfect introduction, as does the rest of "Transfiguration #1." The first of a few thematic instrumentals, it acts as the album's exposition, previewing each native element one by one – the neatly picked guitar, a hint of organ, whispered drums, harmonica, barroom piano – but it's not until the first proper song, "Vincent O'Brien," that the introduction concludes with Ward's inscription: "He only sings when he's sad / And he's sad all the time / So he sings the whole night through / Yeah, he sings in the daytime too."

As Transfiguration continues, it settles into an innocent, soulful meander, trading shades of quiet now and then without ever rising much above a whisper. The difference between the slow melancholy of "Undertaker" and "Involuntary" and the restrained excitement on "Helicopter" is usually the instrumentation; at his simplest, Ward says enough with only the guitar and his throaty croon, but the well-placed bout of faint organ or rudimentary drumming helps to create the occasional moment of low-key frenzy. Now and then some of the sparser songs recall the earliest of Ward's fellow Portland native Elliott Smith (especially on interludes like "Duet for Guitars #3"), while the dry, windblown sound of California friends Giant Sand and Grandaddy appears in the fuzzy distortion of "Outta My Head." Though the most specific reference to geography is "I am somewhere in the city," the west coast influence is at least palpable.

But even if you can nearly tell where it's all from, Ward never lets on when. If anything, Transfiguration is more old than new; you might swear that "Sad, Sad Song" and "Dead Man" (just to name two) were word-of-mouth folk spirituals – considering ever-repeated couplets like "Dead man, dead man, don't cry / When you die it ain't the end / It ain't the end when you die". What you have here is the exact opposite of a period piece: it's new but it feels old, it's here but it's nowhere, it's now but it's forever. Whatever, wherever, and whenever it is, though, it's lovely.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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