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First Listen: M. Ward, Hold Time


After a sidetrack spent with Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward is back with Hold Time, infusing his latest solo record with the same soulful '60s sound he and Zooey explored as She and Him.

"She" makes an appearance here, as do Lucinda Williams and Rachel Blumberg of The Decemberists. In return, Ward offers a more mature, surprising rendition of his solidly signature sound. Hold Time doesn't come out until Feb. 17, but I've been streaming the CD over at NPR. To read my initial thoughts on all 14 songs, read more.

  • "For Beginners": The album announces itself with totally classic Ward sound, leaping off into the eclectic mix to follow. There's a trotting little guitar hook and sultry, sighing vocals for an overall acoustic sweetness.
  • "Never Had Nobody Like You": The swingingest pop number by far, this catchy tune combines '60s melodies with Steely Dan-esque guitar riffs and backing vocals by Zooey.
  • "Jailbird": Between this track and the one right before it, Ward sounds like he's aged 30 years, in a wise and welcome way. It's a dreamy but dreary ballad that ditches the retro pop for a modern meditation.
  • "Hold Time": The languid tempo and dramatic pauses make this song live up to its name. Unusually pretty vocals demand that we just step back and listen.
  • "Rave On": At first this sounds like a fairly straightforward rendering of a song popularized by Buddy Holly, with a slightly twangy guitar. But soon Ward adds an ethereal, wintry element to the basic structure, making the song more interesting as it progress.
  • "To Save Me": This one reminds me a lot of "Big Boat" from Ward's Transistor Radio, but considering that's one of my favorite songs, I'll take it. Plus, he adds some irresistible some Phil Spector-like percussion and other textural effects.
  • "One Hundred Million Years": This one floats as if bound to a raft on a slow-moving river. It's just a little bit country, like a steamy Summer day south of the Mason-Dixon.
  • "Stars of Leo": Ward plays storyteller on this slow-burning song, which starts twinkly but simple then builds to a symphonic crescendo. This one didn't hook me at first, but after a few listens, it became a standout.
  • "Fisher of Men": Both the title and the melody here would be equally at home on any of Ward's earlier albums. It's not terribly groundbreaking, but the folksy return to form is a good reminder of his musical progression to this point.
  • "Oh Lonesome Me": On his duet with Lucinda Williams, both singers sound appropriately grizzled. But the call-and-response style they apply to this Don Gibson song, also covered by Neil Young, is awkward and distracting.
  • "Epistemology": This ponderous but peppy experiment seemingly combines all of Ward's influences: a little bit of soul, some twang, electric guitars, and a touch of folk. Interestingly, the result is perhaps the most indie-rock of the bunch, and I can already hear it as a super live track.
  • "Blake's View": A pure and simple folk song with poetic reflections on death, the afterlife, and the comforts of affection. The uncomplicated structure is a nice contrast to the serious subject matter.
  • "Shangri-La": The album starts to gallop out with this road trip-worthy reflection that continues the themes and vibe of "Blake's View" with a bit of gospel influence thrown in.
  • "Outro": With a Southwestern vibe that pays tribute to Calexico, this spaghetti-Western instrumental is eerie and satisfying, like the score to a Tarantino cowboy movie.
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