We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Transfiguration of Vincent begins with the chant of crickets. A soft click, like a lighted match, breaks the pattern and gives way to six strings singing a Western song: a little Spanish, a little high-lonesome. It gently defies the rhythm the crickets set, and it’s joined almost immediately by a small warbling whine that might be the croon of an electric keyboard. Less than a minute in, a drum has set up a backbeat, and there are at least two guitars joined in the wordless ballad. And soon a peripatetic harmonica, a tinkly piano, and even a helicopter spin into the midst. The result, despite its flirtation with sonic overload, isn’t an instrumental ragbag, but a wholly organic progression. And, one might say, a holy organic progression as well, for Portland, Oregon’s M. Ward says that his latest album was inspired by a performance he heard at John Fahey’s memorial service: “It meant a million things to me but mainly it was like I was witnessing an awakening or a revival or maybe a reincarnation—I don’t really know, but it stuck with me. I’m interested in what happened that day. I’m interested in the way love and death can defy each other in music and religion and elsewhere.” Ward’s own sound defies death by shape-shifting: Every time you think you’ve grasped his music and dog-tagged it with “emo cowpunk” or “Nick Drake wannabe” or “Blind Joe Death meets John Lennon,” it effortlessly transforms itself. The changes come within the tracks themselves, but also track to track, as when the campfire-on-the-edge-of-Gomorrah instrumental “Transfiguration #1” gives way to the honest-dollar guitar and raspy-whisper vox of “Vincent O’Brien.” That the lines “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” evoke a wry, been-there smile rather than heart-stomped tears is evidence that this friend of Giant Sand, fan of Tom Waits, and touring partner of Bright Eyes and Vic Chesnutt has a masterful control over his chosen palette of intense emotions. That Ward not only keeps his music accessibly simple but also sustains his transformations through 15 tracks is evidence of something else: that Transfiguration of Vincent is one of the strongest and most unusual releases of the year so far. —Pamela Murray Winters