Two or three tracks into his seventh LP, it's plainly obvious: M. Ward is making the same record yet again. Ward fans probably began intuiting this trend after his fourth full-length, 2005's breakthrough Transistor Radio, but for the first time some of the vintage blues-folk and old-school rock feel ... Xeroxed.
Still, we didn't hold it against Johnny Cash for making country records that sounded like Johnny Cash, and there's evidence aplenty that Ward can still write the bejesus out of a song. What's irksome, though, is wondering how much creative juice he's wasting with annoying "it" girl Zooey Deschanel in She & Him (she "adorkables" Ward's cover of Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart" here, too).
So, instead of anything inventive, it's a parade of Ward's reliable song motifs and Zen-flavored inquiries — "I Get Ideas," the chugging rocker that first appeared as End of Amnesia's "Flaming Heart" in 2001; the old/new boogie-woogie piano piece ("Primitive Girl" here, "Big Boat" on Transistor Radio); the fuzzy rocker that tilts sinister ("Me and My Shadow" here, "Helicopter" on 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent), the nostalgic doo-wop of "Sweetheart" (aka "To Save Me" on 2009's Hold Time).
Some of Ward's music is starting to read more self-referential than comfortingly retro, in other words. But just when you might write him off, Ward snaps your heart in half with a handful of those quiet, dog-eared love songs that sound as timeless as the rustle of trees. He's done these before, too, of course — I once saw Transfiguration's "Undertaker" reduce many in a Cat's Cradle crowd to tears. But here, for the first time, they've had to rescue his record.