"There's nothing but skin and bones/Hiding under a dead man's clothes/Six feet deep in a black box underground!" Leave it to M. Ward to close a song with such macabre imagery and yet make the thing come off as some kind of celebratory champagne-popper. Like the practitioners of the folk traditions from which he draws inspiration, Ward often dwells in the weird places where joy and misery mingle, where crying subsides into laughter and life-affirming faith is shored up with healthy doses of doubt. From his early outings as a John Fahey-indebted troubadour, Ward has shown an abiding appreciation for the old blues truism that you can never be too sad to dance, as well a willingness to push the saying in the opposite direction by taking upbeat standards and making them weep (for a prime example see his forlorn, acoustic rendition of David Bowie's "Let's Dance," from 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent).
Ward's sixth full-length and first since last year's surprisingly wonderful collaboration with movie babe Zooey Deschanel, Hold Time is similar to his recent solo releases in that it expands his sonic palate while maintaining allegiance to a few core characteristics, namely expert guitar picking, short songs that emphasize hooks over verses, and huskily beautiful singing. The new excursions include stringy, synthy balladry (the title track), galloping, '70s-inflected rock ("Never Had Nobody Like You"), and nods to gospel and country spirituals ("Fisher of Men"). In all of these cases, Ward's consummate charm and ability allow him to dabble without appearing the slightest bit dilettantish. Many of the songs here are driven by the conceit that time is frustratingly unstoppable, that life as we live it is little more than a rapid tumble toward death.
Naturally, this rainy day philosophy is ripe for the M. Ward rainbow treatment. "Jailbird," the song from which the abovementioned lyrics were plucked, is another terribly gorgeous, somehow hopeful Ward classic in the vein of Transfiguration's "Outta My Head" and Post-War's "Poison Cup." "To Save Me" is a rocker about feeling miniscule and unimportant in comparison to the greatness of God, and it's either drenched in irony or hearbreakingly earnest; of course, with Ward, one can't be sure that it's not both at the same time. The album's one true clunker comes when Ward tries to play it straight: "Oh, Lonesome Me," a Don Gibson cover featuring Lucinda Williams, wallows in self-pity and snuffs out the light of redemption that seems crucial to Ward's formula. Hardly the saddest cut here, it is by far the mopiest and therefore the least enjoyable.
The effortlessness and frequency with which Ward seems to package his collections of spirited, masterly roots rock is becoming mind-boggling. Another feather in his crowded cap, Hold Time is further proof that Ward provides a powerful jolt to what might otherwise be a tired genre.