Although its title would suggest otherwise, M. Ward’s latest release, More Rain, feels more like a lay-in-a-field-with-your-hands-behind-your-head kind of record than a look-forlornly-out-of-a-window kind. Along with the help of fellow musicians: Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, The Secret Sisters, and Joey Spampinato, the tireless collaborator collects twelve thoughtful songs of hope and tenderness on his eighth solo album.
Initially conceived as a doo-wop record, More Rain often sounds as if Ward’s reverb-drenched vocal takes were found recordings that studio musicians only later added their instrumental talents to. Due to his somewhat scratchy, world-weary delivery, this production approach makes the songs sound as if they’re being delivered by a folk prophet from the past. There’s a timeless quality on tracks that range in style from traditional rock and roll (“Time Won’t Wait”) to uplifting bluesy numbers (“I’m Going Higher”). In-between highlights include: the doo-wop song “Little Baby”, the country-sounding, slide guitar infused “Phenomenon”, and a cover of the Beach Boys’ “You’re So Good to Me”.
While M. Ward’s voice is well-suited to the variety of musical styles he rolls out on More Rain, his lyrics are sometimes lacking. Ward has an opportunity to create some compelling, subversive characters in the song “The Girl From Conejo Valley”, but unfortunately they’re all given banal one-line descriptions that serve no real purpose. Compare Ward’s fictional people to the fleshed out, colorful folks that populate any number of Lou Reed’s story songs and you see what’s possible.
In addition, although lovely musically, the song “Slow Driving Man” is another missed opportunity. Ward sings, “This is a song about a slow driving man, and a good friend gone in a flash”, and while ample time is given within the verses, the song’s narrator provides no other information about the friend or what caused the accident. Unlike the album’s more obvious songs whose lyrical subject matter deal directly with their title’s namesake (“Confession”, “Temptation”, and “I’m Listening”), anecdotal moments on More Rain are wasted. Ward is continuously reluctant to give up any witty and/or descriptive minutiae that would enhance these beautiful tracks and create a more intimate connection between his devotees and these compositions.
The qualities that separate good songs from great songs are often found in the brave, sometimes embarrassing, lyrical and instrumental anomalies that humanize otherwise predictable prose and instrumentation. These aberrant moments help to break down the walls between the artist and the audience, creating a familiarity the listener looks forward to each time the moment comes around. Whether it’s Paul Simon referring to a woman as a “roly-poly little bat-faced girl” or unintentional feedback during a guitar solo, moments such as these are revelatory and important.
M. Ward’s music and vocals are often exceptional on this record. What becomes evident after multiple listens to More Rain, however, is Ward’s apprehension to utilize poetic license. It’s this deviation from convention that can make a good song great and create a stronger bond between an artist and their admirers.