Timelessness is the ambition of most musicians but out of all genres that fear time-stamping, folkies quiver the most. A trite guitar lick or lyrical reference can be the bane of the Fleet Foxes and Bonnie “Prince” Billies of the world. Counting Portland, Oregon’s M. Ward among the bunch is not a stretch. Since his revelatory 2003 breakthrough, The Transfiguration of Vincent, Ward’s been searching for the kind of never-ending musical time warp that Hold Time’s title insinuates. Where earlier records checked off the gravelly singer’s ardent fidelity for John Fahey’s finger picking style (Duet for Guitars #2), the halcyon days of American broadcasting (Transistor Radio), and the detonation of musical exploration in the wake of conflict (Post-War), it’s disappointing when Hold Time is Ward’s most perambulatory release.
That’s not meant to discredit Hold Time altogether. The clunky old-timey covers with Jason Lytle (“To Save Me”), She & Him colleague Zooey Deschanel (“Never Had Nobody Like You,” “Rave On”), and a weathered Lucinda Williams (“Oh Lonesome Me”) may lack panache, but Hold Time gains ground when Ward wrings out his Catholic rearing on tape. It’s a brave thing to do for an artist ensconced in an indie-rock community that largely jeers at the very mention of salvation or Christ. The standout from Ward’s latest batch of spiritually themed songs would have to be buzzing guitar-fueled “Epistemology.”
Here the former Catholic school lad intones in his inimitable rasp: “I learned how to hold on/ From a book of old songs/ And if you’re trying to sing an old song/ You’re getting all the words wrong/ Well, you’re just following along too closely in the Book.” As a lonely man lost in the frosty cosmos, Ward’s struggles with the connotations of belief, death, and the likelihood of a God in a world in unremitting cataclysm are toothsome. For the hushed “Blake’s View," he continues his quest. He croaks about the William Blake’s view that death “is just a door" and on a meta level his lyrics about comparing life and its end to the chorus, verses, and hooks of a song can also point to Hold Time’s terminal fault — a shortfall in lateral thinking. The pieces are all here but the delivery is too straightforward.
These new songs have lofty melodic ambitions but aren’t dedicated to the kind of journeying Ward’s lyrics imply. M. Ward’s never been counted among indie-rock’s MOR musicians, but admittedly well-crafted songs like opener “For Beginners” and acoustic sing-along “Jailbird” go along without consequence. Blame it on the telegraphed thrum of “Shangi-La” or the crunchy bits of pseudo lo-fi on the insipid “Never Had Nobody Like You.” Both come across more polished than revelatory. As a folk artiste continually wrestling with the notion of the eternal in his forlorn lyricism, a pop misstep like “Rave On” is also hard to forgive. Turning a Buddy Holly tune into poppy schmaltz tailor-made for the NPR set, is certainly below Ward’s skill set. If we wanted Volume Two, we would have asked for it.
Even still, Hold Time retains Ward’s late-night-porch jam sound even when his player’s feet are stuck in the floor boards. Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle may be just another wedged noisemaker on the energetic “To Save Me” but the track is one of the more full-bodied melodies as far as percussion is concerned. “Stars of Leo” and “Fisher of Men” are also inclined for the stage in the same way. Where beautiful orchestrals, like the lush title track, touch upon the abstraction of Ward’s agenda, Hold Time’s back half trails off into the ether with little fortitude.
“One Hundred Million Years” fairs worse as a seemingly castoff outtake from Transistor Radio and Lucinda Williams continues her appalling vocal streak from last year’s Little Honey sessions with the dismal duet “Oh Lonesome Me.” The foreboding instrumental outro take on jazz standard “I’m a Fool to Want You” ties Ward’s nebulous spiritual themes together but the listener is still left with a set of 14 songs as hazy and scattered as that old nagging question: What is the meaning of life?