I first heard the longing plucks of M. Ward’s vocal chords ring through the air on the soundtrack to the 2007 film The Go-Getter. While working on the film’s soundtrack he first met future collaborator Zooey Deschanel, and they recorded a lovely cover of the 70s song, When I Get to the Border for the end credits. Shortly thereafter, they recorded She & Him Volume One.
I don’t think enough people know the timeless wonder that is Matt Ward (I use his full name when I call to him in the night). He plucks strings like John Fahey, writes lyrics like the lovechild of Paul Simon and Robert Frost, and sings like a soulful Joe Cocker.
Here are 1o essential songs for anyone who wants to dive into his near-perfect oeuvre. However I must add that the best way to get into M’s music is to buy one of his albums (preferably Transfiguration or Post War), and listen to it all the way through. His records are records in the truest sense, often including an outro, and aren’t as well suited to the disjointed-nature of iTunes-fuelled single purchases. Bear in mind, I am not a music-journalist, ladies and gentlemen, I just really, really, love this man.
1. Vincent O’Brien (Transfiguration of Vincent, 2003)
“he only dreams when he’s sad, and he’s sad all the time
so he dreams the whole night through
(yeah, he dreams in the daytime too)”
This was the first M. Ward CD I owned, and I bought it on a whim without really knowing what I was in for— and I wouldn’t want to have had it any other way. Discovering this record for the first time is better than sex and constellations and human knowledge. I envy those who have yet to press play and lose their M. Ward innocence.
2. Poison Cup (Post War, 2006)
“she said “if love– if love
is a poison cup, then drink it up”
“cos a sip– a sip or a spoonful won’t do
won’t do nothing for you
‘cept mess you up”
This is one of the only songs I can play in the car and my mom will always exclaim how great it is. That sounds like it would be a bad thing, but it isn’t, because with M you don’t care about fans or genres or what’s cool or hot. There’s just the music.
3. Carolina (End of Amnesia, 2001)
“better watch your soul, it’ll leave you like a hundred bucks
my friends said “stick to your guns” but instead I just got stuck”
The magic of this song is undoubtably the lyricism. The words and phrases ring through your head for days or months, depending on how many times you hit repeat. There is some intangible beauty to this chorus:
“used to feel like California with baby eyes so blue
now I feel like Carolina, I split myself in two”
4. Chinese Translation (Post War, 2006)
“and if life is really as short as they say
then why is the night so long
and then the sun went down
and he played for me this song”
One of his most popular and well know songs, because of it’s lyrical symmetry, poetics, and positive energy. I love the way the story he sings weaves seamlessly into the guitar strings, and back out again, and into his vocal chords: reverberating in just the right spots.
5. O’Brien/O’Brien’s Nocturn (End of Amnesia, 2001)
“had a little blood stain on the second fret
but you know it still keeps impeccible time”
I sat on the cool sand of the beach overlooking the Vancouver lights; my baby and I, curled up next to some driftwood. My cheeks, soft and wet with tears: O’Brien’s story was such a sad one. I love to listen to this live version that M. played with Conor Oberst, and remember the times I got to see them perform together, and how great it was, and how happy I was, and am each time I hear this song again.
6. Lullaby + Exile (Transistor Radio, 2005)
“and then a lullaby on Broadway
could sound like an exile out on Main
oh when that curtain closes
you’ll be back in your seat again”
This song always reminds me of my best friend Joanna, and our many long drives along the freeways at night throughout high school. I just close my eyes and picture the full moon as it hangs brightly over the dull headlights of distant traffic, and let M. Ward sing me a lullaby.
7. One Hundred Million Years (Hold Time, 2009)
This song demonstrates Matt’s amazing guitar skills. He plucks away with no guitar pick, fingers flying off the strings faster and faster as he goes, all the while maintaining that signature coolness and composure. There is no doubt that you have to see him play this live for it to really hit you where it hurts.
8. Rollercoaster (Post War, 2006)
This almost didn’t make my top ten, until I saw the version he performs live with Jim James (one of his Monsters of Folk collaborators). I always thought M. Ward was strictly great on the records, but he’s actually a completely different artist when you see him up close and personal with his guitar. He hunches over and holds himself with a jaunty swagger. On stage he transforms into an old school blues baby.
9. Magic Trick (Post War, 2006)
My favorite version of this song is actually the one M. Ward recorded with Zooey singing back up. If it were up to me if would always be this way, and their band would be called Him & She. This tune is pure joy and energy, and combined with the harmonies of Zooey and Matt’s voices, it’s just that much better.
10. Epistemology (Hold Time, 2009)
“I learned how to hold on from a book of old Psalms
and if you’re trying to sing an old song, you’re getting all the words wrong
well, you’re just a-following along too closely in the book”
This is a great example of M’s ambiguous yet meaningful storytelling that still resonates. It’s just the right amount of story, without becoming War and Peace.
Check out my Youtube playlist of all of these songs!
Art and writing by Kellie