Review Summary: Ward makes 40s and 50s folk revive itself while still using modern instruments and production techniques. His lyrics and messages are humble and inspiring and his music is just as stellar. A standout for 2006, for sure.
I’m currently reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography. At one point, after he finishes describing his childhood and his early days, he discusses how he isn’t sure if there really is a countryside anymore, at least anything like he knew. Are there any cotton fields left? Does anyone do any real farm labor? Does anyone know what it’s really like? I wish Cash lived long enough to hear M. Ward’s Post-War. It isn’t a country album, and it’s not about the toils of working the land, but it is about as humble and homey as any album produced this year. Ward also says he looked to 40s and 50s post-war music for inspiration to this album, which would also please The Man in Black.
But enough about comparing M. Ward and Johnny Cash, what about M. Ward himself? Well, he looks exactly how he sounds. He’s just a dude that happens to be a great guitar player, singer, writer, producer, and everything else. His appearance exudes as much humility as his music. He’s been blessed with luck and the right connections, and that’s why I’m reviewing his album now and it is why anybody knows about it. Ward’s first band, Rodriquez, released an album that Jason Lytle of Grandaddy produced and his foot was in the door already. Since then, he’s released various solo albums, performed with Conor Oberst, and produced Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat. Post-War is his latest album since his rise to notoriety and certainly does not disappoint.
Yes, M. Ward says he looked to 40s and 50s post-war music. Yes, there are some references to that very subject. But the title of this album refers to something a bit deeper than the obvious. As demonstrated through his lyrics, Ward is talking much more about a personal war, with one’s self and with significant others. He takes a step further back and realizes that post-war is just a period of time in a cycle of wars, as implied through Chinese Translation
. Chinese Translation
is truly a throwback to old folk story songs. Ward executes the feel and style as if he’s had the song burning in his brain all his life. Maybe he has. The guitar exudes a more upbeat-centric “boom chick-a boom” sound that Johnny Cash’s backing band made so popular. Once again, Ward draws memories of Cash’s sweet bass tones in the chorus when he sings “What do you do…” In true folk story style, Ward goes to a man who asks for guidance, and the man tells his message and then plays Ward a song, which is a simple melody which he repeats for an extended guitar solo at the end of the song.
Ward also masters a jazz blues style, most prominent in the next track, Eyes on the Prize
. The song begins with an interlude that links Chinese Translation
to Eyes on the Prize
. It transitions into a lazily swung blues, full of the typical guitar lines found in the blues of those days. With light congas and tambourine making a lazy, slightly dragging backbeat, the song swings more and more throughout, yet it becomes sleepier throughout as well. Ward’s melancholic tone is perfect for the style. Smartly, he keeps the song to a short length because it just starts to get old and boring as the song cuts off. Other jazzy samples find their way into the album through the funky organ tone of Afterward/Rag
and the Rhodes piano led Post-War
is easily the most laid back yet best songs on the album. It nearly spans 5 minutes yet it could go on for another 5 and still be interesting. With little percussive inflections and jazzy Rhodes piano lines, Ward seems like just another component to something bigger than just himself on this song. The tasteful brush drum set adds a lot to the feel, as the snare never overpowers anything as many artists might feel tempted to do. These little jazz/blues stylings make the album all the more enjoyable and make it more than just a folk album.
What makes the album so great and enjoyable is Ward’s vision and brilliance. Even through all the different perspectives and voices conveyed through the album, Ward never loses sight of what he is really creating. He never lets the album get out of control with variety. The album flows excellently and Ward even links a few of the tracks together through short interludes. He keeps the western feel of the album through short instrumentals such as Neptune’s Net
and some straightforward western songs like To Go Home
. To Go Home
pulls in a full band, something Ward has never done on any of his other solo albums. He calls in Neko Case to add female vocals and make the song even bigger and fuller. The song follows a typical song structure and features a homorhythmic instrumental theme that brings everything together. Ward’s humility shines through his lyrics here more than ever, with lines like “God it’s great to be alive” and the overall message of returning home, to a quiet and serene place.
Whether it’s the sing-a-long Magic Trick
, the calming feel of the title track, the heavier western Requiem
, or that simple vintage folk style of the entire album, most people will be able to find something thoroughly enjoyable about M. Ward’s Post-War. It’s not perfect, the second half the album gets a bit lazy and short, but it shows some honesty in today’s music world. If the album didn’t have a modern production sound and crystal clear clarity, I might think this actually was released quite a few decades ago. It isn’t truly the time period Ward aimed for because of his use of electronic instruments, but he captures the mood about as well as anyone.
Eyes on the Prize