The Legends of Laurel Canyon
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best
Transfiguration of Vincent
Christmas in the Heart
Glitter and Doom Live
Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Playing for Change
Death is an impossible mystery to the living. What happens to us after we pass? We know, quite specifically, what happens to the body, but what of our soul?
The answers are so dusky and intangible, that we often abandon our pursuit, allowing the vast darkness to stretch across space and time like the night sky. But where words fail, the sounds existing in the world of M. Ward’s 2003 album,Transfiguration of Vincent, an album equally inspired by and dedicated to the passing of a close friend, seem to make sense of this very thing that we so fruitlessly struggle with. Ward doesn’t tell us why there is death, but he helps us figure out what to do with it; mourn and lament, absolutely, but also celebrate the life that was; for it undoubtedly enriched our lives.
Throughout this album, Ward takes us on the journey of a soul experiencing a great transformation. We travel through many sounds and landscapes; at one moment, plaintive, gently swaying on the back porch, we are just as easily swinging through a sprawl of urban decay, or floating like a specter through a lonely, abandoned hotel, where the ghosts gather in their remorse. At once joyful and sorrowful, this is an album that pulls from many influences and emotions, but never once sounds like an effort at eclecticism. In Ward’s previous two efforts, he ranges from genres of early R&B and rockabilly to prewar folk and lo-fi pop. But on his third, fully realized effort, Ward manages to blend them into a seamless, astoundingly unique sound. Influences may be apparent to some, butTransfiguration is a world that is inherently Ward’s.
We begin with the sound of crickets, then the striking of a match. Ward’s guitar gently plucks, an organ gently hums, and we find ourselves entranced in what feels like the rocking of an old, wooden chair in a musky swampland, put to ease by the coolness of the night, and the placid air. Suddenly the crickets’ chirps have set the beat, and the sounds are that of a celebration, of levity. The fuzz of a guitar rolls in like a tidal wave, a burst of distortion shouts, and at once we have embarked on this journey. A plaintive harmonica whistles, and before we know it we are listening to the sounds of a saloon style piano, the drifters and whores dancing and stumbling about. It’s not exactly picturesque, but festive, for sure.
The first third of the album takes us through a myriad of sounds. From the kinetic energy of Vincent O’Brien and weary blues of Sad, Sad Song to the gentle stream of silk that is Undertaker, on which Ward sings “Oh love is so good, when your treated like you should be, the sky goes on forever, in a symphony of song.” Ward gently coos, his voice ethereal, and cherubic. It is a stark, but fitting contrast to its predecessor, where in Ward’s voice is grainy and coarse, as he laments, “So I went to my mama, I said mama please, what do you do when your true love leaves? She said the hardest thing in the world to do, is to find somebody believes in you.” His voice echoes as if stuck in an incessant tunnel, forever bouncing back and forth. He does, after all, sing, “I only have but one trick up my sleeve, I sing it over and over, ‘til she comes back to me.”
As Undertaker ends, the coo of an organ gently fading, we hear the shimmering moan of what sounds like a distant train. Ward’s delicate finger picking sets in, and we find ourselves back on the porch, in the dusk, in the woodlands. The track is Duet for Guitars #3, an energetic, and lighthearted instrumental. It fades into a field recording of something resembling Appalachian folk, only to have that fade into the declarative riff of Outta My Head. We are hit with a burst of fuzz and are smack in the middle of the album’s most melodic track. Organs flutter, Ward’s guitar ponders, and he sings, “Oh a playful little kitten met a playful little bird, and then off with its head, off with its head, oh my.” It is a poignant observation of the simultaneous pleasure and pain of love, and of life, once there, then gone.
Helicopter is a purebred folk track, Ward’s guitar heroic and energetic. It is sporadically dabbed with deafening screeches of feedback, and the track feels like a sort of purgatory, equal parts wild west and urban decay. Barren, desolate, the sun inevitably setting, our hero swings into town, guns a blazing. “I am somewhere in the city”, Ward sings, “I am climbing up a fire escape. I have gotta save my baby from a mess this world has made.” Poor Boy, Minor Key starts off with an early-jazz piano rag, evoking the emptiness of an old hotel, vacant except for the ghosts. The drumsticks click twice, and the fuzz sets in. Ward tells of a boy and girl, both in the calm of sleep and dreams. “One day the will be as giants”, he sings, “Stronger than the sun, but that day ain’t yet come.” Fool Says is reminiscent of a 50’s rockabilly song, as Ward muses on the promise of newfound love. “I ain’t ever met anyone like you before”, he sings, “I thought all the good ones were gone, you’re here to tell me I was wrong.” It swoops and sways through the woozy bridge of an ethereal organ and the distant sounds of a megaphone.
Ward tackles death most directly on the track, aptly titled, Dead Man. Just him and his guitar, he pleads, “Dead man, dead man, don’t cry. When you die it ain’t the end, it ain’t the end when you die.” Ward has taken us on a journey of love, at once found and lost, and of the promise of a future, of life going on. He now speaks to his departed friend, asking him to see the beauty and joy of it all. The body is gone, but the soul lives on through our memories and our celebration. It could have been the closing track, but Ward furthers his point by following it with a stark rendition of Bowie’s Let’s Dance. His guitar sounds ghostly, with intermittent sounds of a woozy piano. It’s nighttime, and the night is drunk, and so are we, swaying “under the moonlight.” The track ends, and we hear a helicopter overhead, followed by shimmering feedback, the scratch of the wheels against the track. Old passengers are off, new ones are on. And the train sets off. A remorseful piano sets in, and sees us out. The journey is over, but the cycle starts all over. I know that I, for one, will be pressing play again.
As Reviewed by Chad Depasquale