IT'S EASY TO TAKE M. Ward for granted. As is the case with most other Portland artists who have gained some national notoriety, we tend to react with jaded nonchalance. Yeah, whatever, they're ours—who needs to be impressed? We've got Gus Van Sant; we've got Chuck Palahniuk; we've got M. Ward (at least we did up to a couple months ago when he moved to the East Coast). To gush about any of them would be tantamount to touting the praises of a successful second cousin everyone's already heard you talk about a million times before. I mean, duh—we know, okay? It's beating your family's belovingly inherited dead horse, and sometimes you've just got to learn to leave well enough alone.
But I suspect there's another reason we take Ward for granted. It's got something to do with the particular quality of his vocals, how natural and smooth it sounds, how very much it seems as though it's just grown up out of the earth like any tree you've ever seen. Old-timey and comforting, listening to Ward sing is like observing the Model T in its native habitat, like listening to your inner thoughts broadcast over the buzz and crackle of a transistor radio. It's admiring an angel whittled out of soap.
Ward owns Americana, and his previous releases have shown us as much. His aesthetic works in such a way to seem not simply influenced by an era of music long since faded into sepia, but actually of that era. In addition, his ability to remain diverse within those confines cannot help but impress. The man's got a musical vocabulary within a niche that you'd think would easily exhaust itself. So far, it hasn't, and yet Ward has made an unmistakable step forward with his newest album. He's discovered what it means to rock.
The album, Post-War, seems to exist as a kind of exercise in hope—looking beyond the fighting to a time a bit more celebratory (if difficult to reconcile), when our soldiers come home and we have some newfound sense of shattered wholeness. The phrase "post-war" has a lot of connotations, and the album manages to touch on many of the emotions you might expect. Nonetheless, the mood is pervasively upbeat. Ward has a full band here, and he uses it. Neko Case steps in with some backup vocals, and I really can't imagine a more fitting collaboration. The fact that they cover Daniel Johnston is just icing on the cake, or, rather, a scoop of ice cream on Ward's pie-cooling-on-the-windowsill, old-fashioned sensibilities. Tradition is still very much alive on this album, but, somewhere in the dusty recesses of Ward's America, the 1950s finally rolled around, and you can see what it's managed to bring.
So yes, perhaps it's something of a local faux pas to do anything but shrug and nod at the merits of Ward's music, but sometimes you've just got to remind both others and yourself that there's reason to be proud to live in a city that harbors talent of this caliber—the caliber of a rifle finally laid aside by a native son come home at last. And that's the kind of bittersweet ending I think we all appreciate.