Review – Hold Time by M. Ward

Hold Time comes at a critical moment for M. Ward. His profile has slowly been building up over five albums, with songs ranging from ragtime (Duet for Guitars #2), fascinating covers (Let’s Dance, To Go Home by Daniel Johnson, and Well Tempered Clavier by, er, Bach), campfire songs (Fuel For Fire), to soulful country rock (Outta My Head, Hi-Fi). An amazing guitarist (have a look at the YouTube clip below – just look at those fingers! See how he can suddenly turn from smashing out chords to fine fingerpicking in an instant), he’s head and shoulders above most other singer-songwriters around these days.

This is his sixth full album, and follows on from his work with Zooey Deschanel as She and Him. He’s been getting big props from everyone from Conor Oberst to Noel Gallagher. He’s been recording, producing and co-writing songs with the likes of John Fahey, Norah Jones, Jason Lytle and Neko Case, so his alt-rock credentials are about as high as they can get.

So, is this the album that finally propels him into the big time?*

Well, I’m not sure. M Ward albums have always had this lovely ancient crackly quality to them, making them sound like something dredged up from the bottom of the Hudson river from 1947. Even on Post War, his most modern sounding album, it still felt like a window to a lost world. But Hold Time seems largely lifeless and lacking in the soul that filled his previous records. Much as I love the variety of his writing, he’s starting to sound like he’s simply running through the numbers here; “Hold Time” and the cover (featuring Lucinda Williams) “Oh Lonesome Me” excepted. “Oh Lonesome Me” in particular shines through, sounding like She And Him should have been if he’d recruited a vocalist who could sing and had a sense of timing, rather than being Auto-Tuned into soulless oblivion.

But for the rest, the outlook isn’t so good. “For Beginners” sounds like it was knocked off in a couple of minutes (irony?). “Never Had Nobody Like You” is a lazy glam-stomp, and not necessarily in a good way. “Jailbird” starts to show some of the old M magic, but starts to drown under a sea of strings. And so it goes.

Could be that I’m just being harsh. It’s tough for any artist to have a run that lasts for more than three or four great albums. But to me, Hold Time sounds a little too dashed-off, as though he’s been so distracted by everything else going on that he’s forgotten to write the kind of album that got him noticed to start off with. There isn’t as much of the fantastic fingerpicking and inventive songwriting that so characterised his last few records. Worst of all, this album just hasn’t grown on me in the way that Transfiguration of Vincent, or Transistor Radio, or Post War did. Am I expecting too much?

In any case, I really do hope that other people listen to this and love it, and start to explore his older work. And I really do hope it doesn’t put people off, for M Ward’s music is (almost always) something to treasure.

Hold Time by M Ward

Oh Lonesome Me by M Ward featuring Lucinda Williams

*Something that would help would be to play bigger venues in London. You’ve just sold out the Academy, and the Bush Hall show sold out in minutes, so why not play somewhere bigger like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, so more of us can actually come and see you? Come on mate, sort it out.