Friday, February 26, 2010

Chinese Translation by M. Ward

Reading a book at the table in my mother's living room, I had put on the three albums of M. Ward that are on my iPod. Finally it reached the song "Chinese Translation" from the album Hold Time, which must be my favorite song by him, and certainly the one I have listened to the most. My attention was diverted by the song, both because of my fondness for it and because of personal/recollective associations I have with it, which are quite strong. I actually felt my tear glands come alive, ready for whatever emotional expression might be called for.

I listened to the song intently, wondering what exactly attracts me to it. What are the auditory qualities that make it so pleasing to hear and so evocative of particular mental images and emotional textures? Is it futile to attempt to use words to convey the exact way a sound, a song, makes us feel? I feel a bit daring at the moment, so I think I will try.

The song opens with two guitars going in opposite directions, one up and one down a ladder of notes. Pause for a second. Then comes in the voice and the verse music. There are no sounds too sharp or penetrating. The instrumental and vocal textures are smooth and polished and pillowy, without any distortion but also without much treble, except that which comes from the light drumming. The drumming keeps up a beat which instantly calls up a feeling of movement. A steady chugga CHUgga chugga CHUgga, repeating regularly. The guitars which keep the rhythm are in a middle-deep pitch range, and in the sonic distance you hear a slide guitar. This slide guitar gives the impression of depth. A landscape. You can feel the distance between the guitars, which are in the foreground, and the slide, which gives a third dimension to the song. Little licks from the slide guitar flare up. You can hear quick picking on the guitars, but because the sound is so smooth (a mix of nylon and steel strings) and without rough edges, the song seems to progress both quickly and slowly. At moments, the slide, which has a thicker, more rounded sound, combines with the drumming to evoke the image of a train. The beat of the drums is complemented by the rhythmic tap-tapping of picks and fingernails on the strings of the guitars, offering more sonic intimations of movement and travel, like the patter of a hundred footsteps. The layering of the instruments, especially all the guitars and bass, enhances the perceived depth of the sound. In the last ninety seconds of the song there is a soft, pleasant howling on the air, like a swift but gentle wind blowing through this melodic landscape. The song ends the same way it began -- it is bookended by guitars climbing and descending musical ladders.

The impressive part is how well this conjured musical expanse is harmonized with the vocal work, both in terms of pure sound and lyrical content. M. Ward's voice is light, never overpowering, never harsh. Just like the guitars, it is soft at the edges. Nothing about it is going to cut into you. That Midwestern accent adds to the suggestion of open spaces -- longer, looser vowels. And of course, the lyrics themselves pertain to travels over vast distances, a cyclical, generational search for answers to some of life's big questions.

I'm not saying it's the best song ever recorded, or anything like that. But it is a masterful piece inasmuch as all the parts of the song work in harmony and create a unified impression on the hearer. It makes it so easy to drift away, to be taken in by the lyrics and transported in thought to the scenes that are described.

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