Over the past four months, since he started showing up with frequency on my Wilco station on Pandora (probably the second-most guest appearances of any artist on that station to Ryan Adams, an excellent musician in his own right), I’ve been falling absolutely in love with the music of M. Ward, listening to first his most recent solo work, 2009’s Hold Time, and then his 2006 work Post-War (with a rollicking set at the 9:30 Club in Washington somewhere in between). (For the record, I find it unfortunate and a waste of his time for him to be recording a Christmas album with Zooey Deschanel as part of the vanilla, largely boring She & Him outfit instead of a new solo album or a new work as part of the supergroup Monsters of Folk.)
I had listened to some of Transfiguration of Vincent – notably “Vincent O’Brien” (named for the friend of Matt Ward’s he, in effect, eulogizes with this album) and “Helicopter,” along with Ward’s brilliant cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” – but hadn’t heard it in full when I saw it not three weeks ago at the Borders on Columbus Circle with best friend/Guest Week writer Kelly Cordray; I ended up getting it along with Andrew Bird’s Useless Creatures, his instrumental companion to 2009’s Noble Beast, and the soundtrack to The Book of Mormon, both of which I had heard before (the former on Spotify, the latter on NPR Music).
The album begins with the first of three instrumentals, “Transfiguration #1,” which I can imagine someone playing on a porch at night this time of year; the sounds of crickets abound alongside Ward’s guitar. Then comes “Vincent O’Brien,” which lyrically is an apt description of my life – Vincent sings, and dreams, and laughs when he’s sad, but he’s sad all the time, so he sings and dreams and laughs the whole night through (and in the daytime, too) – much like me, fighting oft loneliness with song, laughter, and general activity to at least salvage contentment. “Sad, Sad Song” is a musically spooky, lyrically morose Dr. Seuss-esque tale, with a man consulting a doctor, a Whip-poor-will, a killer whale, and finally his own mother, to answer the question, “What do you do when your true love leaves?” The entire first movement, if you will, of the album is relatively morose, but keeps some semblance – however false – of joy.
“Duet for Guitars #3,” the second instrumental track, represents the start of the second movement, a much happier time (but still with darkness), with “Outta My Head” combining a dreamlike state with beheadings (for the record, the opening riff sounds a bit like Wilco’s “Pot Kettle Black“), and “Helicopter” being, melodically, the most upbeat track on the record. “Poor Boy, Minor Key” kind of reminds me of an old speakeasy, and “Fool Says” and “Get to the Table on Time” round out this movement.
The final movement of the album, in my view, begins with “A Voice at the End of the Line,” beginning a final, plaintive, mournful stretch of songs. “Dead Man” asks the one who is dying – possibly O’Brien – to not be mournful, an unfortunate twist on things, and then comes Ward’s deconstruction of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”; its change in tempo really notes the mortality present in the lyrics of the song (what with the dancing “for fear tonight is all”), but even then there’s still that shred of wistfulness, that what happened before could still persist.
Any shred of wistfulness is taken away, though, with the haunting final track, “Transfiguration #2,” repeating piano chords that is more or less the gut punch to what at least had been a journey of contentment, even when surrounded by sadness. It truly crystallizes what Ward wrote in the liner notes, a letter to his friend “d.j.”: “THIS RECORD WAS DESIGNED TO KEEP THE LOSS ALIVE AND BEHIND ME.” We all share that loss – not of O’Brien, at least not outside of some vestige by listening to this record, but of friends, of family, of neighbors, not just through death but in migration or simply an emotional falling-out – and, in my case, anyway, I can project it upon this album, to keep that sense of loss, and the realization of what I’ll invariably lose in the future, both in my mind and not. In that way, Ward performs not only a personal service for the loss of his friend, but a treatise on mortality – and a 45-minute walk-through of the memories that come along the way.