Ward, over his last nine studio albums, has positioned himself at the top of the pile of whisper-voiced American folkies. Characterised by tender, dreamy lyricism and his signature hushed tones, Ward largely toes this line on this, his tenth release – a collection of eleven songs inspired by human migration. On album opener Migration of Souls, Ward’s characteristically wistful tones mix the existential with the extraterrestrial while an echoey, rhythmic pluck of the guitar is accompanied by muted chords. Lyrically, Ward has never been more interesting; musically, he’s treading very familiar ground.
Stylistically, Ward could be said to, for want of a better term, be “getting back to basics”. Certainly, proceedings feel closer in style to early works such as End of Amnesia and Transfiguration of Vincent as Ward scales back the raucous guitars present on the electrically-tinged More Rain and What a Wonderful Industry in favour of gentle, existential balladry. With the exception of the driving, synth-heavy Unreal City, things feel stripped back here; Ward, it would seem, sacrifices musical dynamism for thematic exploration.
In his capable hands, however, this is by no means a failure and, indeed, said lack of dynamism suits the theme well. The slow and heavy tones of Heaven’s Nail and Hammer gives one the impression of wilfully having your head in the clouds; getting lost in nostalgic remembrances and the promise of new memories made. Anything is possible in Ward’s world. It’s an early highlight and perhaps the best song on this record. Real Silence, which retains the synths of its predecessor Unreal City, hits a similar tone, though perhaps with more vigour, as Ward’s eerie tones plod through the empirical wilderness, searching for peace and tranquillity.
It all works fairly well and there’s enough here to keep your attention until instrumental closer Rio Drone relinquishes us in a calming wave of rhythmic, Western-style strings. Ward has an excellent set of songs here but, for all its ambition, the album never quite manages to hold together cohesively. It’s a rough gem full of highlights but one can’t help but thinking that he has fallen somewhat short in his grand and cosmic intentions. Still, if this is him on a bad day, the folk raconteur has nothing to worry about.