Don't panic, America. Gas prices suck, summer's totally over and Iran (maybe almost) has the bomb, but our stockpile of new Dylans is at its highest level since 1973.
After the glut of new Dylans in the '70s (Bruce, Loudon Wainwright, Waits, Warren Zevon, et al.), we went through a decade known as "the really lean-ass, nearly Dylanless years"-back when even Dylan himself didn't fill our Dylan quota. In the mid-'90s we rebounded with Beck, only to find out he was the new Ad-Rock/Lou Barlow/Prince.
Thankfully, the '00s have been good to us. Very good to us. There has been Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams, Amos Lee and Sufjan Stevens, and, best of all, M. Ward.
Why's M. Ward the best of the bunch? For starters, he's weird, he's good and he wants it twice as much as The Boss or Conor Oberst ever did. But none of this matters. It's how he talks and what he says that makes him perfect. Two minutes on the phone with M. (calling from at a beaten-down Best Western hotel room in Omaha, Neb.-how fucking Dylan is that?) proves he's no amateur.
"I find that when I start interpreting my songs for people, it spoils the party," he says with his measured, distant voice. "I'm not interested in narrowing down any of the interpretations or any of the layers that may or may not be there. I like that music can be different for different people, and I like that the title [of his new record, Post-War] doesn't have to be like Snakes on a Plane. It doesn't have to tell you everything you need know."
Ward's mildly philosophical, aversive phone ramblings bring to mind early Dylan. But it's actually the modern maestro he emulates. Like Bob's latest string of albums, Ward wants to break some lyrical ground. Sonically, however, he's only interested in old-fashioned, pre-rock song structures.
Post-War is full of folk, blues and 1940s Broadway numbers. The lazy acoustic strumming and slide guitar on "Rollercoaster" and "Eyes on the Prize" sound like outtakes from Modern Times (which kinda sounds like Hank Williams covering "Swanee River"). Ward goes so far as to include some ragtime guitar pickin' and an instrumental, "Neptune's Net," that borrows from Cole Porter's "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love."
"The album is inspired by older songs and post-[WWII] production styles," he says. "I spend most of my time listening to older records, and I still believe the sound that came out of Sun Studios is the pinnacle of American recording. So much of what you hear on the radio today is not necessarily artists, but executives trying to recreate the sound that was a hit for someone last month."
The first tactic to get this "classic" sound is all analog gear. "I've never been interested in any digital recording technology," he says. The second is tracking down old instruments-not vintage instruments, but crappy guitars and slightly out-of-tune pianos. Then you just jam au naturale.
Now, it may seem like Ward is trying too hard to manufacture a nostalgic sound. And that's because he is. But take a listen to 1962's Bob Dylan. Bob's debut was totally derivative. He was trying to be derivative. All but two of the songs are covers, and the originals are Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly rips.
Ward knows you don't get to be the new Dylan by bursting onto the scene fully formed. You do like Dylan: pretend you're a troubled, brooding genius who hates critics and fame and loves pre-Dylan singers for a few years until it's second nature.
"Getting rich and being in everyone's household was never the goal," says Ward earnestly. "The way I look at my job description is just as someone who experiments with sounds and musical ideas."
He's on to something for sure. Expect our new Dylan surplus to be good for a while.
M. Ward plays with Mike Watt at the San Diego Women's Club on Sept. 27. www.casbahtickets.com.