First of all, let it be known that I am a huge fan of M. Ward’s music. His last album, Transfiguration of Vincent, was my favorite CD of 2003, and it also may be my favorite disc released so far this decade. Some fans will swear by the previous Ward album, The End of Amnesia, as his best. That one’s great, too. I can think of few songwriters working right now I admire as much as Ward. I’d also rank him among the best guitarists around, and one of the best singers.
Have you ever heard a band or singer for the first time and felt as if the sound was something you’d been looking for? In my case, M. Ward is one of those artists.
So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise how much I’m enjoying Ward’s newest CD, Transistor Radio (which comes out Feb. 22 on Merge Records).
Given my high expectations, I felt disappointed the first time I listened to Transistor Radio. That M. Ward sound was still there, but the songs seem quite as strong as those on Transfiguration. Maybe that was because some of them are muted, deliberately sounding distant, like broadcasts from a mysterious radio station (that being the theme of the album). I wouldn’t be surprised if some critics and listeners have the same first impression. The three-star write-up in the newMojo reads like a review by someone who hasn’t listened to it enough.
But with repeat listens, all of the melodies and musical nuances made themselves clear. Transistor Radio is another Ward classic, with one beautiful song after another, the sort of album I’d gladly listen to more than once in a row.
Although Ward describes the CD as a sort of concept album dedicated to underground and independent radio stations, it’s not clear how the concept applies to most of the songs, at least as far as the lyrics go — other than “Radio Campaign.” The concept has more to do with the spirit of the songs and the way they sound.
Transistor Radio starts out slowly, beginning with a brief instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me,” followed by a song obviously designed to sound old-timey, “One Life Away,” in which the narrator directs his song “to the people underground.” It’s not clear until the end whether the “fraulein” he’s talking about is one of the living or dead people. (Even at the end, I’m not sure it’s totally clear.)
The next three songs, “Sweethearts on Parade,” “Hi-Fi” and “Fuel for Fire,” are typical Ward — melodic folk-rock tunes that could have been hits in the Simon and Garfunkel era of the ’60s or cult favorites from the likes of Nick Drake in the ’70s.
Then the album shifts into a bluesier section, with a trio of songs using more electric guitar, piano and elements of early rock. They’re far from standard wannabe oldies, though. “Four Hours in Washinghton” is a haunting scene of insomnia, without anything resembling a chorus, the lyrics more like a poem with a circular structure. The melody is slight, ranging no further than a few notes, and maybe not that original. Somehow, Ward makes it all his own. The song reaches its climax as the words end and acoustic guitar picking emerges from the mix. The next track is the instrumental “Regeneration #1,” the kind of echo-laden jam that Ward’s pals in My Morning Jacket might pull off. And then there’s “Big Boat,” a rocking gospel number with a bass piano break that echoes late ’60s Kinks classics. In case the ferry references in the lyrics aren’t clear enough for you, the CD cover shows a book titled, “Coins for Charon’s Ferry.”
As “Big Boat” ends, the CD reaches what would be the end of Side 1, and Ward says he intended for people to listen to the album as a two-sided LP. That’s an outdated conceit — how many people are actually going to listen to this on vinyl? — but it’s still not a bad way to organize the songs for an album.
“Side 2,” such as it is, begins with “Paul’s Song,” a pretty and melancholy tune that declares every town seems the same to a touring musician. From there,Transistor Radio runs through a series of six more classic Ward songs, showing his great knack for coming up with tunes that sound simple on the surface but work their way into your head. The title of “Radio Campaign” refers to a single line in the song, and it’s a wonderful idea: A guy putting out the word in a radio campaign that he wants to get back his old “peace of mind.” One of the last songs, “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” was already as a bonus track on the reissued version of Ward’s first album, “Duet for Guitars #2,” but I don’t mind hearing it again, here in its new context.
Closing as it began with an instrumental guitar performance, Transistor Radio comes to a peaceful and achingly lovely conclusion on “Well-Tempered Clavier” — actually, the first prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s a beautiful composition that has almost become a cliche as a study piece for piano students, and yet I’ll never grow tired of hearing it or playing it, and it’s such a joy to hear Ward transcribing it for guitar.
And at that point, I feel like going back to that Beach Boys song that began it all. If this really were an LP, I’d be turning it over to Side 1 again.