M. Ward easily overcomes the inherent limitations of the "guy with guitar" genre by virtue of his dusty, vintage style, marked by deep echo, cracked vocals, and a guitar that sounds like it blew in on an island breeze. And with each new album, Ward has gotten better at writing to suit the presentation. His latest record, Post-War, is full of songs that evoke sea chanteys, campfire songs, carny barkers, and varsity rags—whatever sounds charmingly out-of-date. When Post-War comes out on vinyl, it better be at 78 RPM.
The album was recorded with the help of a cast of indie-rock all-stars, including Neko Case, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Saddle Creek jack-of-all-trades Mike Mogis. Working with a fuller band only opens up M. Ward's sound a little, but it makes a difference on songs like "To Go Home," a piece of sardonic pop that sounds percussive and triumphant, even with a chorus that promises, "I'll be true to you forever, or until I go home." Elsewhere, Ward and company make "Requiem" into a careening, rousing tribute to "a good man" who wasn't all that good, and on the breezy shuffle "Chinese Translation," Ward weaves together the strum and slide of two guitars while asking, "What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?"
Post-War is easily M. Ward's most accessible album to date, charged with a bouncy spirit that manifests in the surf instrumental "Neptune's Net" and the sing-along ditty "Magic Trick." But it's a weird record, too. Even as Ward is being positive and reassuring, he's winking a little, and the jauntiness of songs like "Rollercoaster" feels a little sucked-dry. Maybe the slight ironic distance has something to do with the album's title, or with the unexpected minute of silence that comes immediately after Post-War's third track, the acid-rock Cab Calloway exercise "Right In The Head." The songs all sound warmly familiar, but they're only meant to provide cold comfort.