M. Ward’s peculiar strength—his wonderful, breathy vocals—begs comparison (Nina Simone? Antony? Mark Linkous?) but he’s a markedly original performer and probably one of the finest male singers of the MySpace generation, though contemporaries like Conor Oberst don’t offer much competition. For the most part, Ward’s tenor whispers and coos, but he’s a confident singer experimenting with texture rather than a victim of Chan Marshall stage fright, and hearing him is a treat. The chanteuse-as-a-boy shtick lends itself well to covers (Post-War features a terrific rendering of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home”), but Ward is a gifted songwriter in his own right, as well as a fine studio craftsman.
For the most part leaving the folksy finger-picking of his earlier albums behind, Post-War is a lush blend of humming synths, organs, gentle strings, and the deceptively simple acoustic strumming—part punk, part Guthrie—that the late Elliott Smith pioneered. It’s a great sound, but it can be distracting; you find yourself identifying each track more by its studio quirks (“Oh, this is the one with the fake applause at the beginning!”) than by the songwriting. This is one of the few “folk” records where lyrics are de-emphasized; Ward’s a lovely vocalist, but he’s a mush-mouthed one.
Incomprehensible though they may be, these songs are the jam. “Requiem” is a white-boy gospel hymn without the irony but with some clanging trashcan lids. The Jim James collaboration “Magic Trick”—the aforementioned one with the fake applause—is a rollicking campfire sing-a-long mashed up for AM radio. The title track is a lulling ballad that’s kind of like a lounge band covering Belle and Sebastian. There have been a number of fine folk-tinged releases lately (Mountain Goats, Eric Bachman, the upcoming Jason Molina and Will Oldham albums) but the eclectic Post-War may not be quite so easy to pigeonhole. It’s an inventive, sharp delight of a record, and possibly one of the year’s best.