M. Ward: Supernatural Thing [Album Review]

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M. Ward
Supernatural Thing
ANTI- [2023]

For singer/songwriter, instrumentalist and renowned producer, M. Ward the art and creativity at the heart of making music is a Supernatural Thing. In the album’s title song, he shares a message from Elvis, the original one from Memphis, that when it comes to direction, “you can go anywhere you please.” Drawing on the inspiration for his 2005 album, Transistor Radio, Ward’s muse seems to dwell in a place where he can “remember running with a homemade transistor into the nowhere of the night/and picking up transmissions in a code from a host of foreign satellites” (from the song “Too Young to Die”), where a movement of the dial brought in soul and R&B, old folk songs and down-home blues, and early rock n’ roll before formulas and boundaries between genres came to rule the day. Taking in the album’s 8 original compositions, plus a jazz instrumental version of one of David Bowie’s last recorded songs, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” and a live version of Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist,” it’s clear Ward has taken to heart the idea from the title track “that the line is growing thin/between beautiful and strange.”

In spite of the warning in the song “Too Young to Die,” that if you “teach a kid guitar, he’ll be broke the rest of his life,” M. Ward has developed a tasty, imaginative approach to the guitar that shines with retro resonance throughout the pop melodicism of the title track here, and elsewhere on Supernatural Thing. On numerous recordings with Zooey Deschanel in their band She & Him, and on productions for the likes of Mavis Staples and Bright Eyes, Ward has exhibited a mastery of the classic musical vocabulary and sonic geography that suggest past classics while creating something altogether new and fresh.

And some of the beautiful strangeness here is made possible through carefully cultivated collaborations with the likes of First Aid Kit singers, the sister harmonies of Johanna and Klara Soderberg, which sing in duet with Ward on “Too Young to Die,” and again in the retro rock & roll vibe of “Engine 5,” where they offer up the Mama’s meets the Beach Boys to match Ward’s solo Papa. For the twangy Americana piano pop of “New Kerrang,” Ward is joined by guitarist Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog, and for the vocal chorales of “Dedication Hour,” he turns to Neko Case and Gabriel Kahane. And then for the ingenious reinvention of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” as a haunting jazz instrumental, he turns to the trumpet of Kelly Pratt and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

So while Ward takes a great deal of inspiration from the innovative influences that fuel his own musical explorations, evidently the one thing he can’t abide is plagiarism, and not giving credit where it’s due, as he describes in “Mr. Dixon,” with aid from the wife and husband duo, Shovels & Rope. It’s not exactly clear in the lyric if Ward is referencing white rock & roll artists who borrowed heavily from African American blues artists, as Led Zeppelin was found to have done on “Whole Lotta Love,” when they incorporated Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” when Ward writes that “you did not find that in your imagination/…you found it in your record collection/say it belongs to a song Mr. Dixon wrote.”

M. Ward opens his 12th solo album with a folk rooted song that we need each other to be a “Lifeline” of sustaining encouragement. He sings, that “I need you to be a lifeline for me/… I’ll be a lifeline for you someday, you’ll see.” But in concluding the album with his live rendition of Johnston’s “Story of an Artist,” he seems to recognize that artists and musicians will often be misunderstood and thus “walks alone.” While the masses “sit in front of their TV/…and they laugh at the artist/… some would try for fame or glory/others like to watch the world.” Ward sees the value of individual artistic expression, even longs to hear it transmitted across the airwaves, recognizing the power of music and artful expression to create a connection, to inspire, to throw a lifeline to someone who’s feeling isolated and adrift. In the end, the goal is liberation, “you can go anywhere you please,” and M. Ward’s latest work finds the artist doing just that.

“To Young To Die” / “Supernatural Thing” / “New Kerrang”

Ben Harper / Joseph Arthur / Bright Eyes

Migration Stories (2020) / More Rain (2016)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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Fire Track: Lifeguard- “17-18 Lovesong (Live at Electric Audio)”


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