Ward has said again and again that he thinks the 1950s was the golden age of American song. Listening to his latest batch of nostalgia-tinged pop songs, Hold Time (Merge Records), you might find yourself agreeing. Ward, the producer and guitarist who brought a sepia-toned authenticity and simple sweetness with the '60s-throwback pop of the band She & Him last year, mines everything from Roy Orbison's dignified rock to Johnny Cash's country shuffles on this album, his most accomplished and satisfying yet.
The secret to Ward's success is that he's not merely a revivalist; he views the sounds of traditional pop, blues, country, and rock as the most basic components of his musical vocabulary, and from them he crafts songs that are at once retro and utterly timeless, graceful, and thrillingly alive. That modus operandi extends to his lyrics, where he borrows familiar phrases from the pop vernacular but gives them a slight twist, assembling them in new ways to create his own personal songs about love, loss, and death.
The American songbook isn't the only tome borrowed from on Hold Time; Ward, who names "Amazing Grace" his all-time favorite song, also makes spirited use of biblical language and imagery, using the tropes of the Christian faith as touchstones and illustrations to lend his songs weight. In "For Beginners," for example, he traces the genesis of pain back to the "original sinners" in the Garden. Then there's "Fisher of Men," a seemingly straightforward ode to Christ himself, while "Epistemology" gives props to Saint Paul and the fruits of the Spirit. A couple of other songs look to mystical poet William Blake or to George Harrison, ...1