M. Ward is remarkably consistent in his production of rock and pop music evocative of some dusty slice of the mid-20th century that possibly never existed.
As if coming from a leatherbound, tweed-faced vacuum-tube radio with the dial set to a familiar station you’d forgotten about, his music evokes nostalgia while still channeling the present.
M. Ward has a distinct, consistent sound, and at first the album seems like it could have come out at any time during the last decade and a half.
However, Ward has not just written the same songs again. As with his earlier work, repeated listening reveals layer after layer of invention and innovation throughout the album.
“More Rain” (Merge Records 2016) begins with mechanical hums, rain, and wind chimes, sounds that fade into the background through the sleepy “Pirate Dial” and then finally disappear into 50’s stomp of “Time Won’t Wait.” Lead single “Confession” features a bright, catchy guitar hook and a soaring trumpet solo that shines like heaven through a hole in the clouds, alongside lyrics about laying down heavy burdens.
Work on the album began four years ago as a DIY doo-wop project, with Ward experimenting with layering his voice into early-60s-styled harmonies.
Fingerprints of this beginning are found all over the album, as in “Time Won’t Wait,” “You’re So Good To Me” and especially in the lullaby, “Little Baby” where guest k.d. lang provides a backup harmony part.
Ward credits his star-studded guest roster with the more adventurous direction the album took: along with k.d. lang, the album features songwriter Neco Case on guitar and backup vocals on “Time Won’t Wait” and REM guitarist Peter Buck on the driving rock-and-roll number “Temptation.” Buck also provides a sparkling mandolin part on “Phenomenon.”
In addition, the record features collaborations with the Secret Sisters and Joey Spampinato.
The guitar playing is gorgeous throughout the record. “I’m Listening” includes jazz-inspired, unusual rhythms in the guitar solo, while “Slow Driving Man” features some of the best uses of a tremolo pedal that I’ve ever heard, providing a shimmering effect perfect for a sense of resigned recollection amid imagery of long nighttime drives.
“More Rain” is very much a headphones record, full of little details that reveal themselves on repeat listens. Careful listening reveals innovative mixing and arranging techniques throughout the album: hard-panned doubled drum tracks on “Confession,” gorgeous echo effects on “Time Won’t Wait” and especially on the backup vocal on “I’m Listening (Child’s Theme),” tape effects on the drums in the upbeat and hook-laden “Girl From Conejo Valley,” the warbly distortion of a portable tape recorder in the guitar on “You’re So Good To Me.”
The latter song is an arrangement of a Beach Boys song, filtering Brian Wilson’s eternal sunshine through the Portland clouds in a way that works surprisingly well.
Rain, or rather, the set of feelings that accompanies falling weather, permeates the album. Ward sings of late night regrets, recollections of characters from his past, and hope for future renewal.
In the album’s press release, Ward states, “I think one of the biggest mysteries of America right now is this: How are we able to process unending bad news on Page One and then go about our lives the way the style section portrays us? There must be a place in our brains that allows us to take a bird’s eye view of humanity, and I think music is good at helping people — myself included — go to that place.”
Perhaps for M. Ward, the answer to loneliness and gloom and overcast skies is “More Rain”. Or perhaps, in light of the powerful, hopeful closing track “I’m Going Higher,” the answer is to raise oneself through the fog, look down, and reconsider.