M. Ward, who sings in a hushed rasp that rarely registers above a murmur, may not be the first vocalist to leap to mind when thinking of modern equivalents to Billie Holiday. An Americana minimalist with a penchant for arty atmosphere, Ward appears to exist on an entirely different plane from Holiday, a singer who always seemed like she was mining the depths of her soul. It’s not just a difference of genre or era: there’s a chasm separating the two artists in terms of aesthetics.
Art doesn’t tend to follow a straight line, though. M. Ward fell in love with the music of Billie Holiday when he was leaving adolescence and gravitating toward 1958’s Lady in Satin, the last album she released in her lifetime. Ward was drawn to how he mistook Holiday’s voice “for a beautiful perfectly distorted electric guitar—some other-world thing floating there on this strange mournful ocean of strings.” This characterization of Holiday is especially true on Lady in Satin, a record that captures a singer navigating through the damage of her voice due to drug and alcohol abuse. The evident wear on Holiday’s instrument rankled some listeners, as did the overripe arrangements of Ray Ellis, a producer who was known for his work with such pop trifles as the Four Lads. The cognitive dissonance was by design. Holiday realized her bruised voice would benefit from supple string support and this contrast is part of what gives Lady in Satin its power. Like the Frank Sinatra Capitol records of the 1950s that inspired it, Lady in Satin tells an autobiographical story through its interpretations of tunes from the Great American Songbook.
The same could be said of Think of Spring, M. Ward’s tribute to Holiday that essentially amounts to an album-length cover of Lady in Satin. The songs don’t run in the same sequence but apart from “The End of a Love Affair”—an Edward Redding song that was swapped for “All the Way,” a Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn song written for Sinatra in 1957—they’re all here, all performed with an easy warmth that conveys a deep, abiding love of the source material. This intimacy is heightened by Ward’s decision to record the album on an old Tascam Portastudio he acquired when he was a teenager. Deep into the GarageBand era, working with such outdated analog technology as a four-track cassette recorder seems nearly as retro as the Great American Songbook itself, so the combination of vintage tech and classic tunes creates a bit of a dreamy shimmer, a quality that suits Ward’s quiet rearrangements of familiar tunes.
Ward’s gentle and floating reworks of Lady in Satin’s songs are grounded in his experimentations with alternate guitar tunings, an instrumental technique that results in unusual chord voicings and suspended notes. The particulars of the tunings aren’t as interesting as their feeling; the chord progressions and light riffs seem to hang in space, providing a soft bed for Ward’s husky whisper. It’s a folkie refraction of Holiday’s original album: She needed an orchestra to provide comfortable support for her weathered voice, while he only needs his own guitar to carry his grizzled purr.
Instrumentation and fidelity certainly are elements that distinguish Think of Spring from its inspiration, as is the record’s ultimate emotional impact. At the time he recorded the album in 2019, M. Ward had outlived Billie Holiday by a few years, yet he sounds younger on Think of Spring than she did on Lady in Satin, where she sounded as if she was wrestling with the collected weight of her entire life. The stakes aren’t nearly as high on Think of Spring. It’s an album made with affection, curiosity and care, a record with a specific, sometimes bewitching vibe. Its mellow sway is alluring but it also can drift ever so slightly into the realm of mood music, perhaps an inevitable result for a gently restless musician who seems to favor feel over feeling.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.