M. Ward carries the past around with him like a big, gaudy sheriff badge hanging off his shirt pocket. There’s no looking past it — the Oregon cowboy is a self-appointed custodian of a bygone era. Since the late ’90s, he’s been laying down rickety guitar lines on antique equipment, cutting a lengthy discography that plays like a brittle old scrapbook of Appalachian folk, Nashville country, Creedence swamp rock, stomping bluegrass, and a dozen other throwback genres. At his best, his records sound like lost gems that slipped through a crack in time and dropped into the present day: all retro charm, but punctuated with sharp songwriting, pretty arrangements, and swinging melodies.
His latest offering, More Rain, sees sluggishness creeping into M. Ward’s sound, resulting in one of the least impressive records he’s signed off on. The ballads don’t quake like they did on 2005’s intimate Transistor Radio. The pop songs don’t pop like those on his last solo full-length, A Wasteland Companion. Instead, the melodies wither, the choruses refuse to stick, and the prose doesn’t crackle. This is pure ’70s pastiche, surface-level appropriation with little lying beneath to make the exercise worthwhile. Ward sounds as comfortable as an old pair of XL cotton pajamas. You can even picture him wearing them — drifting in and out of slumber as he sits next to his crackling analogue radio. The 41-year-old is sinking as he enters middle age, lazily leaning towards the comfortable and familiar.
If the record’s title sounds like the kind of expression you sigh forlornly on a dreary day, then the music follows suit. Even the more uptempo tracks are mostly a wash-out, as Ward rides his hallmark ramshackle arrangements until the wheels come off. “Time Won’t Wait” is the biggest culprit of haphazard stitching. The track tries to rein in wacky honky-tonk, girl group pop, and T-Rex-esque glam rock (the riff is so close to that of “Get It On” that the estate of Marc Bolan might want to look at it very closely), but comes off as more of a sterile exercise in sonic referencing than a loving homage.
Other moments just seem lazy. On “I’m Listening (Child’s Theme)”, Ward claims omnipotent powers to those who might talk behind his back, but the overly repetitive tune makes him sound more petty than concerned. “Slow Driving Man” is a midnight blue ballad for the post-dusk chauffeur, but Ward telegraphs the message to the point where the self-referencing becomes a distraction. “This is a song about a slow driving man,” he sings. Whereas once his lyrics rang with color and detail, this lack of care feels like a cop out.
“Girl from Conejo Valley” is straight perplexing. Much of Ward’s best work has a haunting sense of isolation, like he recorded it while sequestered in a remote cabin. The song’s buzzing synths and choppy helicopter whirls sound like a war of the worlds broke out all around his isolated abode. The singer-songwriter strums away as a UFO peers into his front room and Schwarzenegger’s chaaapper spins all around. It’s tranquility ripped apart by chaos.
More Rain does have some worthy moments. “Little Baby” benefits from some soothing vocal harmonies while the AM dial allure of “Pirate Radio” connects the dots to Transistor Radio. These are reminders of the tumbledown charm Ward’s best work possesses.
But the wheels on the record don’t just tremble and squeak — they completely detach. Eight solo albums in, M. Ward’s indie folk wagon finds itself stuck in the mud. All the expected points have been hit on More Rain, but the record comes off as slack and slapdash. Total reinvention is required. Without it, Ward may be doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
Essential Tracks: “Little Baby”