A familiar melody chimes through the beginning of Transistor Radio, Matt Ward’s third album and follow-up to the extraordinary Transfiguration of Vincent. It’s the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe In Me,” re-created on two acoustic guitars. Although you can still pick fragments of the original’s sweetly melancholic arrangement out, Ward’s version has gathered some antique charm—it takes on a completely different personality in Ward’s hands. Which, perhaps, is his biggest asset—he knows the virtues of ambiguity. When exactly was this album recorded again?
His voice, which is downtrodden and just a little rusty, cracks over these mini-dirges with a timeless charm. Which makes it so difficult to pinpoint Ward’s sound, to pick words to describe it—on the surface, it’s incredibly simple-sounding. But delve deeper and you find that these songs have as many layers as a towering evergreen trunk carved into cross-section view. Ward turns the dial of his own transistor radio and captures the sound, atmosphere, and production of everything he picks up signal on—even if it means the monophonic haze of “One Life Away” (with Jim James) sounds ancient in comparison to the following track, the sweetly disorienting “Sweethearts on Parade.” Somehow, it all makes sense as a whole.
Transistor Radio bears a less introspective nature to its predecessor—nowhere is Ward hoping for “a voice at the end of the line,” instead taking on a more abstract, metaphorical lyrical tone that suits the evasive setting the songs take place in. But the shots Ward does take here hit hard—”Come back / My little peace of mind,” and “I’ve got lonesome fuel for fire” say so much with so little that I imagine all other so-called lyricists jealous that Ward got to these sentiments before they could.
Ward’s diverse yet strangely united, collective sound is blanketed with the rustic sense of rootsy, outdoors America—where the back-porch is still home, where the rocking chair sways softly in the breeze, where the sun sets over the horizon and you can see for miles over the amber landscape. Where the internet and digital cable aren’t even part of the vocabulary. And most importantly, where a man with an acoustic guitar can put you right in the middle of this serenity, despite honing his craft in the post-millennial age. When everything else today seemingly needs a blip or a beep, Ward is content letting the spirit of centuries past play his backing band, giving Transistor Radio the sweet spirit your history textbook is lacking.