M. Ward may be one of the few artists who truly understands the potential of a studio recording. Having long been regarded as something of a sonic loner – both in spite of and because of his friendship with Conor Oberst – Ward’s recordings started off sounding like bedroom angst recorded through a tin can. But with 2005’s Transistor Radio, the world at large began to see Ward had more to offer than his mournful crooning and virtuosic acoustic guitar picking. Finally on 2006’s Post-War, Ward burst from his shell with a collection of Jim James-produced pageantry, all production tricks and Roy Orbison-esque swagger. Last year’s release with Zooey Deschanel under the name She & Him had me almost convinced I was never going to get a proper M. Ward record again (Post War was great, but it sounded unevenly like the work of its producer more than Ward himself). And then Hold Time arrived and it all became clear. M. Ward hasn’t changed, he’s simply taken control.
On Hold Time, Ward and engineer/sideman Mike Mogis have figured out where to strike the balance between the glitz of Post War, the full band sound of She & Him, the lonesome sound of his first albums, and as always, Ward's truly inspired guitar playing. Hold Time feels like a man with total awareness of his powers, and it shows in his arrangements, his most endearing to date. The songs go from fast-paced feasts of layered guitars and thunderous percussion (“To Save Me”) to the quiet numbers that sound like they’re perpetually drifting down a lazy, autumn river (“One Hundred Million Years”). Like the perfect director, Ward makes a song feel like it sounds, complete with scratches, the compression, and the right amount of reverb. Listening to him trade guitar licks with himself on “Oh Lonesome Me," it sounds as assured and calming as a sunset, and he knows it. He can make a song sound 40 years old, like on “Stars of Leo," then melt the quiet and assure the song’s modernity. But the true power of Hold Time came through for me when “Fisher of Men” came on. Though “Fisher” sounds like a combination of every kind of song Ward has ever written, somehow it still sounds new and vital – post-punk meets the Grand Ole Opry.
He’s asked some heroes and friends to join him; Lucinda Williams gives a rousing ‘n raspy contribution to “Oh Lonesome Me”; so impassioned and fitting is her performance that it’s tough to decide who does the better job. His collaboration with Jason Lytle on “To Save Me” is just about the coolest damn thing a Grandaddy fan could ask for, and is, frankly, my favorite song of the last three months. Rachel Blumberg of the Decemberists and Norfolk & Western sits in again on drums (she played on Post War), giving things a backbone in that spunky way that only she can. I admit that I was prepared to dislike Hold Time based solely on Zooey Deschanel’s presence, but her collaborations do make two of his best songs ("Never Had Nobody Like You" and "Rave On") even better. Using Deschanel’s voice as backing instead of having it front and center was a wise decision; her voice sounds flawless behind Ward’s.
M. Ward albums have always been decently paced, but Hold Time goes by in the blink of an eye. Moving deftly from style to style, song to song, electric to acoustic, the 14 songs bleed into one another and pass through your eardrums like the soundtrack to a fleeting, idyllic daydream. Hold Time feels like the statement that Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga was supposed to be: the record of today, yesterday and tomorrow.