There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my "evil eye" upon this world; that is also my "evil ear." Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails — what a delight for one who has ears even behind his ears, for me, an old psychologist and pied piper before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that in 1888, and it’s never rung quite as true for me as it did on Thursday night. Only for me there’s no joy in the fall of this idol. And all I needed was one set of ears to hear him come crashing down.
I was willing to forgive M. Ward of his trespasses: his side project with Zooey Deschanel, its music as plasticky as the discs it’s sold on; his crushingly plain new solo album, so divorced from the sad, surreal world he used to inhabit and give glimpses into with breathy and breathtaking verses; that time on NPR last month when Bob Boilen asked him to play one more song “for the fans” and the singer refused without even a feint of an explanation. I was ready to write all these things off as bygones. You do that sort of thing for your idols.
But there is something serious afflicting the musician who put on one of the best shows of my life in September 2006, during his Post-War tour. Call it She & Him syndrome. Call it Norah Jones jaundice. Call it the New Pornographers pandemic. Whatever it is, he’s got it bad.
When Ward opened Thursday night’s show at Paris’s Café de la Danse with “Epistemology,” a straightforward love song from the new LP, I was excited to hear what the tune would sound like without the recorded version’s cloying strings. But as the band tumbled into the refrain, Ward’s electric guitarist reached for his synthesizer, sending shammed violins and cellos out through the speaker rack.
As the night wore on, it became clear that Ward’s band was determined to crunch and distort the nuances out of every song it touched—most disappointingly, the old gems “Chinese Translation” and “Vincent O’Brien.” Ward has never been an “indie” musician in the typical sense, so much as a folk musician with a magnificently ethereal touch. But it was that otherworldliness – in his lyrics, instrumentation, and presentation – that made his work so artful. On Thursday, there was barely any of that. Ballads were subjected to cheesy, blue-eyed soul vocal harmonies, while beloved rollickers like “Vincent O’Brien” got buried under profuse fuzz. This was a mediocre roots-rock bar band that had had a few too many beers before sound check.
Ward’s six-song acoustic interlude was the highlight of the show, with “One Hundred Million Years” and a finger-picking instrumental medley as standouts. But it is clear that twilight is fading into night over M. Ward’s dream world of fishing boats, rusty guitar strings, and deep, dark wells.
Note: the above photograph is not from Thursday's concert; it was taken at his Friday performance at Paradiso in Amsterdam. It was uploaded by Flickr user Guus Krol.