We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
M. Ward’s Post-War has a concept problem: The war he’s singing about isn’t over. But concept has often entranced the Portland, Ore., folkster—2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent employed John Fahey–esque guitar-pickin’ to eulogize a friend, and 2005’s Transistor Radio memorialized a medium subverted by Clear Channel. Post-War’s dogma deficit is most evident in its meandering title track, where Ward’s thesis (if he has one) should blossom: “I know when everything feels wrong/I’ve got some hard, hard proof in this song,” he sings in his trademark husky baritone. Hard proof of any clear politic, however, is what this drippy ballad lacks. Still, a handful of striking singles survives Post-War’s ideological miscarriage. Why do we have to pretend that the strong opener “Poison Cup”—Ward offers a bittersweet revision of the Stones classic, heart-wrenchingly intoning, “She said if love, if love, is a poison cup/Then drink it up,” over lush, billowing strings—is somehow related to the Middle East? Likewise, the lazy lilt and stirring chorus of “Chinese Translation” (“What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?/And how can a man like me remain in the light?”) needs no philosophical dressing-up. There are misfires unrelated to the War on Terror—the instrumental “Neptune’s Net” is the most redundant bit of surf-rock since the Pixies’ “Cecilia Ann”—but most of Post-War casts Ward’s distinct rereading of American popular music in a flattering light. The artist might have made a career out of charmingly pillaging big-band swing and reinventing early rock ’n’ roll for people whose idea of old-time music is Elliott Smith, but his theft is never less than charming. The Harry Belafonte yelps of “Magic Trick,” the psych guitars of “Requiem,” the messy drums, explosions of spring reverb, and the ragtime piano of the Don Ho-ish “Rollercoaster” are slick, and he even pulls off a Daniel Johnston cover. But since the Decider’s pet anti-terror crusade is designed to be waged everywhere, all the time, forever and ever, amen, Ward’s vision of a world at peace subverts his doggedly apolitical songs, which just can’t shoulder their role in his half-baked crusade. Which, come to think of it, may be the most political thing about Post-War—its failures are an apt analogy for the events that inspired it.—Justin Moyer