It was good and all, sharing M. Ward with Zooey Deschanel, but it's nice to have him alone. It's been a year since She & Him's Volume One debuted, three long years since Ward's last solo album, Post-War, and umpteen years since his notoriety outgrew Portland city limits and got him splashed all over the pages of every glossy publication in the business. While plenty of others have their hooks in him, Ward's still our very own starry-eyed nostalgist.
Ward's sixth studio album, Hold Time, is as much a wistful collection of sounds and stories as his previous work. The main difference: There's a bit more polish on the production, and less lo-fi grit in Ward's trademark troubadour style—even compared to Post-War—which makes for a solid album with a few standout songs.
Gone are the heady days of bedroom recordings and old-timey hisses and scratches, but a little spit and shine hasn't changed Ward. "Every record I make comes from the same place, which is this big unorganized mess of four-track tapes, so I don't really know how old the songs [on the new album] are. They come from all over the place. There's just hundreds of songs that I've written over the years. It's a mess, really," Ward says. "I find songs that I think I can thread together in some way."
While Ward ("Matt" to his mother) makes it sound as easy as four-track dumpster diving, the care with which Hold Time was assembled is immediately apparent—as if he made a well-curated mixtape that perfectly captures a certain time and place. In fact, Ward's songwriting is all about the soundtracking of moments, like a modern-day bard whose aim is to remind all the youngsters of forgotten gods and the mortals who consort with them in a strange, faraway land. He has an ability to suspend moments and create intricate tableaus in song format.
"We all have our ways of remembering the meaningful stuff that happens in our lives, and for me it's music more than anything else. And that idea of music and memories is running through all of my records, especially this one," says Ward.
On Hold Time, Ward's original songs are recorded with his own unaccompanied vocals, and they mesh well with the album's two barn-burning covers, both duets. Buddy Holly's "Rave On" is here slowed to a sweet, summery version accompanied by Deschanel's feathery back-up vocals, rivaling the perfection of Ward's take on David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Lucinda Williams' throaty duet with Ward on the Don Gibson song "Oh Lonesome Me" is an acquired taste that, once acquired, is a song of great intensity and beauty. "It was incredible [recording with Williams]. I've been a big fan for a very long time and I started hearing her voice during the production of [the album]. I sent out the invitation and she said yes. I was thrilled and I still am."
So, okay, we still have to share him a little bit, even on his solo albums, but nonetheless he's still all ours—Portland's professional mixtape-ologist, who can freeze frames and hold time, freeing us up to remember and dream about the past... at least until 2010, when the new She & Him album comes out and we'll have to share him with Zooey all over again.