Folk music has a reputation for being boring, droll, or sometimes, downright miserable. Strumming, acoustic banjo solo this. Heartbreak that. Insert metaphor about the Ancient Greeks that almost makes sense…here. While these might be conventions of the genre, it’s good to get away from the doom. And how do you do that? Go for the gloom. Sure, that doesn’t sound very far removed, but it’s a step in the right direction. M. Ward’s More Rain does just that. Released in 2016, the inspiration for his ninth album was born from his morning routine. Every morning he read The New York Times and it was…depressing. So he decided to write something that might capture the idea of constant bad news, and turn it into something else.
But what else was he trying to capture?
More Rain opens up with a minute of rain recorded on a rooftop. The sound is eerie, yet peaceful. From there, the album heads into “Pirate Dial,” a song that reminds listeners “It’s alright if you don’t mind/It’s alright if you do/You’re still coming through on a Pirate Dial/I can hear you.” A common theme amongst later songs such as “I’m Listening,” “Confession,” and “Phenomenon,” all about having someone to talk to. While they don’t focus on words of wild encouragement, the “lending an ear” approach to lyricism adds a level of comfort that is initially unexpected. “Time Won’t Wait,” and “Girl From Conejo Valley” also shares these features. The tone of the lyrics does not wallow in that feeling of “not being out some Saturday night” or “not having someone to love,” but rather has the tonal finesse of “I’ve been there, and, well, hasn’t everyone?”
Yet, one can’t say the songs are exactly “feel good,” either. The music certainly takes a dive into that territory on “Temptation,” and “You’re So Good to Me,” the latter of which is a Beach Boys cover. There, “doo-wops” and “sha-lala’s” are added (some might say egregiously so), but I’d argue against it. The addition of bandstand vocal-backing mixed with the instrumental choice creates a bitter sweetness to the buoyancy. Bass, piano, and percussion often bring a somber note to the overall melodies. Even when the tempo is perfect to dance to, the muted style gives it a slower, more thoughtful feeling. Everything sounds washed out, as though it’s being played through an old radio. While nostalgia is never explicitly mentioned, the whole album has a “throw-back” feel. To counter the review from Uncut, “The lack of ironic twists is both slightly unsettling and hugely refreshing…,” I’ll go one step further and say: the irony of having no twists is what makes it so delightfully unsettling.
Listening to the record oddly feels like looking through a window. There are elements of real timelessness. Decisively simple, the record doesn’t drag the listener by the ear, but invites; there’s nothing so tempting as a half-empty dance floor. In this same way, the album provides listeners with enough distance to make the initial approach seamless. And before you realize it, the album is halfway over. One could listen to it while idling around a room, or after being out all night. It’s the sound of gearing up while winding down. It says: Stop. Think. Take a moment. There are deep undertones of sorrow, as though something is wrong but…the album just keeps playing. In this sense, “You’re So Good to Me” doesn’t sound so lighthearted anymore—it remains wishful, but in a deeply melancholic way. A “what if,” it becomes the perfect metaphor for being stuck in a rut. You’re in it, but don’t know how to get out.
Gloom of course, has its place within the narrative, but not without solution. The album functions as comfort. Sure, it might be dismissed as Easy Listening, but the more I listen to it, the more I understand the value behind this artistic choice. The album evokes dim lights, deep conversation, and the steady presence of rain outside a window, long after the initial sample finishes. Rainy days don’t have to be depressing. Sometimes they’re needed, so we can take a step back and reflect. No one knows where they’re going. Sometimes we slow down enough to realize there is another battle entirely. Other times, rainy days can be almost fun in a “nowhere to go sort of way.” By far, music that creates headspace for this type of mediation is better than reading the paper, turning on the news, or scrolling social media.
And when the album comes to a close with Ward’s gruffly tender warble of “I’m going higher…someday,” it hits with contemplative punch. There’s no frothy, uplifting, message. Instead, it seems unsure. More Rain is the sound of wanting change, but not knowing how. The album trades in one daydream for another, always aware we’re gazing, listening, wanting something more, too. Perhaps, then, the most profound thing to come out of More Rain is this: in a time that feels like the apocalypse, sometimes the most important thing we can do is slow down, and listen, while we look ahead to better days.