Uncut, March issue
Lo-fi tinkerer completes his transfiguration into major artist.
When Matt Ward released his first solo album, Duet For Guitars #2, in 1999, he appeared to be yet another hermit in his bedroom with a 4-track recorder, inhabiting his private universe at the margins of the bustling indie scene. But through the course of the ’00s, the Portland, Oregon, native has progressively shown himself to be a multitalented art monster, popping up all over the map and establishing himself as a go-to guy musician. Among his many accomplishments: touring and recording with the comparably ambitious Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes; co-producing and playing guitar on Rabbit Fur Coat, the first album of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis; forming She & Him with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and concocting 2008’s soft-rock homage Volume One; and making significant contributions to the records of artists ranging from Cat Power to Beth Orton and Norah Jones.
Meanwhile, Ward’s own albums have incrementally expanded on the artist’s lo-fi roots, which put him alongside such fingerpicking solipsists as the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Smog’s Bill Callahan, Will Oldham and fellow Portlander Elliott Smith. His studio output, which now stands at six LPs, reveals him as a virtuoso guitarist and expressive singer, a passionate conservator of American roots music and a purveyor of Big Themes. All that is special about Ward is encapsulated in the captivating “Chinese Translation” from 2006’s Post-War; it's an epic metaphysical parable enclosed in a lilting alt-country song, embedding poetic verbiage about the cycle of life into the playful arrangement with a Swiss watchmaker’s precision.
Ward’s heady and ambitious sixth studio album, Hold Time, finds him delving deeper into the sounds and themes of Post-War and “Chinese Translation”. The LP will undoubtedly be perceived by some as a religious tract because its rich Biblical imagery and intimations of immortality – and yes, he does thank God in his acknowledgments. But Hold Time is not an album-long testimony of belief; instead, it plays out as an extended meditation on the preciousness of time, the dance of life and death, and what evidence man can perceive of a spiritual dimension in the physical universe.
After the hushed opener “For Beginners,” the first of several contemplations of sin and salvation, Ward wastes no time connecting divine love with its human corollary. On “Nobody Like You”, he describes the redemptive power of true love via a lyric that intermixes the language of traditional songs (“I trusted liars and thieves in my blindness”) and Motown (“But now it’s just like ABC/Life’s just like 1…2…3”), in the finger-snappin’ context of a reverb-drenched arrangement straight out of Dave Edmunds. Then comes the sprightly, string-enhanced shuffle “Jailbird,” which follows the final minutes of a condemned man – one human who knows precisely when the life will go out of his body, which is what interests Ward in the subject. The words he puts in the mouth of his dead man walking directly address the album’s prevailing theme: “Save my soul ’fore they lay my old body down.”
It’s easy to get lost in Ward’s lyrics, but this artist’s thematic concerns can’t be separated from his sonic impulses, which deftly draw on the handmade sounds of Appalachian music, country blues, clapboard-church gospel and early rock’n’roll connect with his own roots. At the same time, the album has all the lo-fi signifiers, from Ward’s imperfectly doubled lead vocals – his wobbly baritone tends to sound like he has a chronic case of cottonmouth – to the gauze of reverb he throws over the tracks like an aural tarp. But these intimate elements co-exist with the most expansive arrangements of Ward’s career.
The album’s leitmotif is its lush, dreamy string sections, which bring a gorgeous poignancy not only to the metaphysical songs “For Beginners”, “Hold Time”, “Save Me”, “Fisher Of Men” and Epistemology”, but also to his radical reworkings of a pair of ’50s rockers, Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” (a duet with Deschanel) and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” (with Lucinda Williams), each slowed to the purr of an idling engine. A third cover closes the album; it’s the Sinatra ballad “I’m a Fool to Want You”, with Ward soloing existentially on tremolo electric guitar over vibes and clouds of synthesized strings, transforming it into the end-title theme for an imaginary spaghetti western that doubles as a wordless hymn.
“I have a lot of questions about that relationship between love and death,” Ward said in 2003. He’s pondering those questions in earnest now. This is a deep, delectable, utterly timeless work.
EMAIL Q&A WITH M. WARD
Can you describe the overarching theme of the album, and of "Hold Time" in particular?
its inspired by being asked where my inspiration comes from. its the hardest question in the world to answer, so i decided to make a record that tried to answer the question.
While listening to the new album, "Chinese Translation" keeps circulating in my consciousness. Is it fair to say the album is an extension of, or further inquiry into, the metaphysical realm?
i guess i m more interested in stories/songs that raise questions instead of pretending to have all the answers. theres not many elements of daily life that can take people to those areas - but i think music can.
With songs like "Epistemology" and "Blake's View," the album practically shouts Big Ideas. What are you trying to get at, and how do you avoid pretentiousness? Can a pop song actually contain this level of ambition?
lyrically, i wanted this record to begin to cover the "inspiration question" for me, so i think i was aiming higher than normal. production-wise, i wanted the big sounds i was playing with from "post-war" to be bigger and the smaller sounds to be even thinner. i wanted to find a balance between rich string sounds and thin, pawn-shop sounds.
Why did you decide to do the Buddy Holly and Don Gibson covers?
the short answer is that ive loved those songs as long as ive loved any song - theyre both love songs but also polar opposites - the long answer is that id like to erase any kind of timeframe on these records im making - i believe in healthy confusion when youre listening to a record - some kind of a chronological disorientation. i like it when i hear a song on the radio and i dont know how old it is, or where certain sounds are coming from. it was a thrill to duet with lucinda on "oh lonesome me" and zooey on "rave on" - their voices are completely opposite sounds to work with.
There's a gospel feel to the music and, in a refracted way, the lyrics on the album, especially as it culminates. What was behind the impulse to go in that direction?
this question reminds me of what its like for me to answer the "inspiration question" - i think the "impulse question" is just as good but just as confounding because i really dont know where it comes from - somewhere in my mind improvisation is equal to inspiration and instincts and impulses...
Your arrangements are more lush than ever before, and yet you've retained the lo-fi character that has always defined your records. Has lo-fi become an aesthetic principle for you, and if so, how would you define it?
growing up with making so many 4-track tapes, that sound is forever in my head and tied to my memory in some way so it has personal value - ive always viewed my larger studio work as an expansion on those sounds as opposed to a replacement.