Review Summary: Soaked in sepia, Ward manages to make Americana nostalgia tunes with glimpses of his future pop sensibilities.
No road trip is complete without that one defining playlist- featuring that one song that everyone decries ever being played again after that one person decides to wing the chorus whilst in a cramped vehicle. But what about the more lonely side of that uniquely American experience, the long drive alone? If continental in scope, one could stumble across trenches of introspection deep enough to replicate low-dose psychedelics. And the perfect playlist for that variant? Ladies and gents, look no further.
The opener presents a degree of irony to kick things off with, what else, but crickets meeting the listener. It's as though Ward expects the mental applause to arrive somewhere between tracks 1 and 15. A jaunty, almost swaggering beat and a campfire guitar lick and strum pattern emerge, and eventually erupt (erupt having little to do with dynamics here, and more the general ambiance of the track) with a cascade of stop-start guitar sections, eventually accompanied by, right on cue, harmonica and piano. The rest of the album deviates from this formula, sure, but as far as making an impression, Ward couldn't have crafted a track with greater impact.
The rest of the album can be broken down into a few categories, as the album never settles on any genre or temperament. Note that motifs were not included in that group. Ward crafts a few pop and stomp numbers, where his vocal strain conjures a sense of desperation, for his standards, such as in the album highlight Vincent O'Brien, with the lyrical refrain of "...you better get yourself together soon!" occurring after the resounding crash of distorted guitar and cymbals. Outta My Head and Helicopter similarly resort to major key, straight ahead numbers building up to the chorus's peppered throughout. This is where Ward sounds the most, as it is, by-the-book, but he's no newbie to the music business, so that book is finely written by this point.
Ward plays a few jaunty numbers, likely stolen straight from an old west saloon piano book, in the form of Poor Boy, Minor Key, and Get to the Table on Time. These hearken back to the opener, and provide the western Americana thread whose influence is always felt hanging above this uniquely mish-mashed album, with musical motifs covering every aspect of the Western United States, including a certain California coast feel present in Outta My Head and Fool Says. All the bases are covered here, so whatever you want to attempt to remember pre-1968, pop in this fine record.
The melancholy tunes add an almost ideological side to the album, as Ward speaks with conviction on the behalf of, and to, the dead, dying, lonely, and other such types. Then again, the Oregon Trail was littered with many makeshift graves, since no journey is worth taking that's lacking any risk of loss. Humans, after all, define our happiness through our loss, and so Ward defines his chugging pop and jaunty guitar instrumentals with breathless lullabies to the down on their luck, whilst injecting brilliant guitar hooks (see, Involuntary) and messages of hope and beauty (see, Undertaker). Therefore, even when the dead man in Dead Man hears the bell toll, and thinks the journey is over, Ward makes one want to go on listening to his soothing pleas that it isn't quite the end, just hang on and don't stop believin'.
Speaking of songs not on this album, a swooning cover of Bowie's Let's Dance provides a fascinating interpretation that may not be for everyone. Ward removes the bombastic nature of the original, with a strumming guitar providing most of the musical character, atop the crests of which Ward's whispy voice finds the grit and crackle of a lover intent on dance floor melodrama. A pleasant gem to top off the album, followed by a lackluster second transfiguration which fully actualizes a feeling of despair, which had always been overcome in the other gloomy tracks. An anticlimactic closer on an otherwise well-paced and well-placed (track-wise) album.
After this sundry journey through the annals of American music filtered through Ward's inspired take on singing and the six-string, it's almost no surprise that his music was featured on the road-trip movie The Go-Getter. The immediacy of these tracks belies their ability to take on new and hidden meanings for the listener, which is why this is one record in my collection that has yet to wear out its welcome, with solid auditory aesthetics and lyrical heart.