Knowledge is little more than a collection of memories. What we store and recall is what we can contribute. To live with a modicum of self-respect-especially with the overbearing positivity of marketing images of America Inc.-we've become experts at remembering what validates our self-image, or the image of self that's forced upon us. Our buttressing asset is to repress what hurts the most.
M. Ward's music hurts. He self-examines, sparing few details. He covets old, lost love. But it's his knack for first-person revelation that feels peculiarly universal.
In his decidedly adult manner of conversation, Ward doesn't really articulate anything we don't already know.
He likes to hike and take in the sun. In his youth, he played soccer. He divulges that he's "not on the verge of suicide," but asserts that he's "not joining the cheer squad, either." Aside from these brief revelations, the shuffling troubadour has little more to offer.
Ward doesn't exactly seem to be the most assertive or aggressive person from Central California, but he claims alpha maleness in choice situations.
"I'm aggressive when it comes to certain things," he says after a long pause. As with most things, he doesn't clarify any further.
What Ward does elucidate, he does so through his music-lonesome, nostalgic roots-rock that haunts in the way good ol' American music is supposed to. A little Tom Waits here, Ryan Adams there, some Beatles-who, though not American, are as universal as Coca-Cola.
Ward's music sounds like a sepia-tinged photograph that sits on your grandmother's dresser. Barroom piano tinkles, threadbare percussion haunts, and a wailing harmonica conjures up the old west musical vibe gone New York City jazz house. His songs are dear to your heart, no matter that you don't know who they're about.
"When I was younger, I borrowed my brother's guitar-he wasn't using it-and I learned how to play chords," Ward remembers. "Our family listened to mostly classical or country music. It all quickly progressed to recording for me."
Ward spent his first six years of recording and touring in the band Rodriguez. While he remembers the band with kind words, he remembers the touring less so.
"I love the music side, [but] I hate being away from home. That plays with your mind," he says. "But my constant inspiration is a strong desire to play a song right on stage, or to improve on the way a song was written."
Ward released his first solo effort, Duet for Guitars #2, in 2000. The sophomore effort, End of Amnesia, was released a year later. Both releases were critical successes, and his newest-Transfiguration of Vincent-does nothing to quell that praise. Many of its twangy guitars and willowy vocals lean into the singer-songwriter craft, but songs like the get-down knee-slap of "Sad, Sad Song" and "Helicopter" would make any hard-ass want to hop in the car and drive until a ghost town presents itself.
"I think my career in music has worked out pretty well, but this isn't something I want to do forever," he says. "I want to be outdoors. That would be nice-to see the sun every day."
The last time Ward got in his car to drive, he ended up touring with Rilo Kiley as his backing band. This time around, he's touring with space-country wallowers My Morning Jacket, who will also serve as Ward's backing band for the 17-date jaunt.
"There is a healthy mystery surrounding our tour so far," Ward says. "Touring is a great way to learn how to play. I don't ever want to be in the position where I stop learning this craft. That would be the end of it all for me, and probably for anyone listening."
M. Ward plays with My Morning Jacket at 4th & B, 9 p.m. on May 7. $15. 619-231-4343.