The other night I was listening to M. Ward on my laptop, not plugged into external speakers, so it sounded old and crackly and thus extra suited to M. Ward's music, and the person sitting next to me on the couch kept saying things like "What is this?" and "Who is this again?" and I kept saying, "It's M. Ward" and then, finally, "It's still M. Ward. It's a whole album." It was 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent. It's an album about age and time, and it only improves with both. It's the album my best friend and I listen to on road trips—setting out on the highway to the gorgeous, molten-gold strains of "Vincent O'Brien," with its awesome opening line, a line about lost days and nights: "He only sings when he's sad, and he's sad all the time, so he sings the whole night through. Yeah, he sings in the daytime, too." On these road trips, we play the Beatles' Rubber Soul after we've listened to Transfiguration of Vincent, and sing along to both, and feel, in spite of the car hurtling forward (and Transfiguration's relatively recent creation), transported back in time.

A week ago, the publicist for M. Ward's new album, Hold Time, patched a call through to M. Ward's cell phone so he could answer a few questions. He was walking through the streets of Paris en route to dinner. I told him about the Transfiguration-of-Vincent-followed-by-Rubber-Soul tradition, and he said, referring to Rubber Soul, "Those productions are going to stand the test of time," and added, "I first started learning guitar playing Beatles songs, you know." He was having a hard time hearing me and I was having a hard time hearing him, but he went on to say something about how discovering the Beatles had led him to discover Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers and the [couldn't hear what he said] Brothers as well as the band [couldn't hear what he said here either]. When I listened back to the tape, I really couldn't hear anything, because the tape didn't fully record over what had been on it before—fuzzy, boisterous talk radio—so whatever he was saying is lost to space, which in a way is perfect. So many of his songs are about mystery, about smoothing over of pathways of connection, about hoping someone will be on the other end of the line, about being okay with the invisible gaps between you and everything else.

On relistening to the conversation, the tape's background noise goes away for a sec and he clearly says, "I think that no matter what you do for a living, whatever you consume, it's going to come out in sometimes predictable, sometimes unpredictable ways. I think that the reason my records sound the way they do is entirely a byproduct of my fear of influences, and it's constantly growing."

At least, that's what I heard on my end of the line. "What do you mean about your fear of influences?" I said.

"Uh, sphere," he said.


"Sssssphere," he said, and then, exasperatedly, spelled it: "S-P-H-E-R-E." And then he said, "Oh, my manager's telling me it's time to go." We'd only been talking for nine minutes—polite, start-stop warming up. But his desire to get off the phone was clear, and Paris is far and the signal was weak, so I gave up.

Which, in a way, is fitting. In addition to the old-world tone of his guitar and the beamed-in-from-afar blast of his voice, most of M. Ward's songs are about distance, or the past, or other fable-big spans of time and space. M. Ward has been writing songs in this mode since he began writing songs. The songs on Hold Time describe panoramic views of mountain kingdoms, arrows scattering through shifting currents of air, someone begging (someone else? The sky? God?) to be saved from "sailing over the edge," someone falling inevitably "into the blue," a river that's been flowing for all time ("Oh, my soul, one hundred million years..."), the sea and the stars staring at each other forever, the sweetly sung refrain "death is just a door"—to say nothing of all the religious imagery of saints and Lords and the attendant intimations of the infinite.

You don't listen to an M. Ward album so much as tap into a current he's had running— a gleaming, rushing, Xanax-y current—from the swollen sounds of 1999's Duet for Guitars #2 through the six albums since. At one point before we hung up, I asked to know more about that current, about the undisrupted mood he's been in for the last decade and why the same images keep being pulled back into new songs, but, in fairness, that stuff's probably hard to talk about. Especially when you have less-abstract stuff on your mind, like your need to eat dinner. There was a French restaurant waiting, and I was just some crackly voice on the line. recommended