Doors 7pm/ Show 8pm
M. WARD’S “SUPERNATURAL THING” DEFIES THE PASSING OF TIME
by James Cushing
Several times, as I listened to M. Ward’s Supernatural Thing, I asked myself what year it
was. Was it 1952, and was I listening to a track from the Harry Smith Anthology? Was it
1972, and was I eavesdropping on the recording session for After the Gold Rush?
No, it’s 2023, and M. Ward is one of the special contemporary artists who invite such
questions. Ward has clearly mastered the whole vocabulary of American popular music
and made serious decisions about how to employ it for his own ends. What Ward
shares with Harry Smith’s artists and Neil Young is a context of musical and human
values: authenticity and intimacy. Supernatural Thing’s original songs sound freshly
pulled from the ground, with a little earth sticking to them. Ward’s lyric delivery has that
slight rawness the ear loves, and his voice has quiet dignity and great tenderness.
Supernatural Thing is an open-hearted, inviting album.
The album’s guest stars — First Aid Kit, Shovels & Rope, Scott McMicken, Neko Case,
Jim James, others — enliven the album with surprises. On “Too Young to Die,” the
women’s voices in First Aid Kit spread a light frosting over the melody, and their Beach
Boys-like chorus on “Engine 5” makes the song sound like an instant hit. The whole
program has a lovely open house feeling, reminiscent of pre-pandemic house parties. It
was at such parties in San Luis Obispo in the mid-1990s where I first heard M. Ward’s
music. He was still a college student, writing his first songs and learning the vocabulary
he uses today with such calm assurance.
I asked him about the title track, in which Elvis Presley appears with a message: You
can go anywhere you please. “Well, all my songs depend on dream-imagery to some
extent,” he replied, “and this was an actual dream I had about Elvis, when he came to
me and said that. I don’t know if it’s pandemic-related or not.” This is the song where
Ward sings “you feel the line is growing thin / between beautiful and strange,” which I
told him I thought sums up the emotional tone of the album. (He agreed.)
“The title Supernatural Thing comes from an early thought as a kid that radio traveled
the same airwaves as messages from supernatural things — and music, especially
remembered music, is somehow tied up in this exchange,” he continued.
“The sending and receiving of messages from memory and dreams seem to move
along this same often broken-up wavelength. In this way and many others, I see this
new record as an extension, 18 years later, of my Transistor Radio record, but this new
record is better because its more concise and has more voices and more moods — the
way my favorite radio was and still is.”
I also asked about the guest artists, especially First Aid Kit, a new name to me. "First
Aid Kit are twin sisters from Stockholm, and when they open their mouths, something
amazing happens,” Ward explained. “It was a great thrill to go to Stockholm and record
a few songs there. The sound from blood-related harmony singers is impossible to get any other way – The Everly Brothers, The Delmores, The Louvins, The Carters, The Söderbergs - all have the same kind of feeling in their vocals."
Eight of the album’s ten songs are Ward originals. There’s an unusual Bowie choice, “I
Can’t Give Everything Away” from Blackstar, and a live rendition of Daniel Johnston’s
“Story of an Artist.” “Bowie and Johnston are constant sources of inspiration for me,
have been for I don’t know how many years,” Ward offered. Hearing the Bowie
instrumental, so different in feel from the original recording, I was reminded of an
evening long ago in San Luis Obispo when Ward, playing solo acoustic in a coffee
house, sang “Let’s Dance” as a very slow ballad, revealing the lonely yearning the
extraverted original only hinted at.
"When you can’t go out and see it for yourself, radio is still the best way for me to
connect with the outside world. Whether it be music or talk or news or politics - FM or
AM or satellite – I re-learned this while stranded indoors during the pandemic - It's
constantly changing at the hands of someone far away who you don't know and there's
a lot in that exchange to be inspired by when it comes to making records"