Someday someone’s going to figure out how to do an alternative Grammy Awards where bands pull up in vans, guys wear flannel, girls tell what thrift store their dress came from, and Yuengling flows freely. At that show, M. Ward is going to be like Natalie Cole, sweeping every category and accepting an LP of the Year award cast in twenty-gram virgin vinyl. In the past couple of years, Ward has gone from just another downcast guy with a mumble, lousy hair, and a retro fixation to the embodiment of everything cool and hopeful about indie rock. He’s a gifted singer-songwriter who happens to be a production genius, a low-key sideman who can hold center stage, a guitar picker fluent in Depression-era blues who can arrange string players with ease and elegance. Last year’s She & Him: Volume One, a Nancy Sinatra–Lee Hazlewood–style pairing with the adorably off-key Zooey Deschanel, topped emusic.com’s download chart and earned lots of year-end gushing.
His latest album, Hold Time, is as finely wrought and thoroughly affecting an indie effort as 2009 is likely to see. Ward’s songs aren’t just pastiches of random images and clever turns of phrase; he’s a master of metaphor with substantial ideas about life and death. “Jailbird” uses deceptively gentle language to describe an inmate’s final lament. “Blake’s View” quotes the eighteenth-century poet as a way to comfort a grieving friend. The songs are solidly rooted in traditional structures—folk, blues, rockabilly, sixties pop—but layered with dissonant noise, feedback, bells, and indeterminable samples. References abound: to Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” shoeshine shuffle, Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby” castanets. Ward manages to make old music sound young again. “Packaging big, complicated sounds and ideas in simple forms is one of the never-ending amusements of making records,” says Ward, who grew up in California and emerged from the late-nineties Portland, Oregon, scene. He finds discussing his music a little less amusing, considering himself a behind-the-curtain, studio-whiz guy. When asked why he mentions Mount Zion in the song “For Beginners,” he says, “I like the place.” Has he been there? “No.” But what does it mean to him? “It’s a place that lives in people’s imaginations, like Shangri-la. That’s a good place for music to go.” What’s the weird percussive sample in “To Save Me” that sounds like a car door? “Let’s call it a car door,” he answers drily. Never mind, then. It’s rare these days to find a personality who doesn’t outsize the product. Is there an award for that?