The “Transfiguration of Vincent,” M. Ward’s third studio album released in 2003, came about in a search for metamorphosis through darkness and into light. The title alludes to the album “The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death” by John Fahey while also being an exploration of the life and death of one of Ward’s closest friends, Vincent O’Brien. Dark and mystical in its own right, the album is a mix of Ward’s lo-fi musings from his previous albums with a more refined style and smarter songwriting.
We get the first taste of Vincent O’Brien’s life on the song aptly titled “Vincent O’Brien.” Here we get to see into O’Brien’s life, a man who lives his life through a veil of sadness. M.Ward documents it brilliantly:
“He only dreams when he’s sad and he’s sad all the time
So he dreams the whole night through
(Yeah he dreams in the daytime too)
There may be mermaids under the water
There may even be a man in the moon
Oh but Vince your time is runnin’ out
You better get yourself together soon!”
“Vincent O’Brien” is one of the few songs with rock elements on “Transfiguration of Vincent.” Most of the album tends towards quiet, dark folk sounds that yearn with every breathy melody or buzz of the guitar. Ward seems to be making a last ditch effort for salvation at the beginning of the album, urging his friend to get his life together before it’s too late.
But soon we fall into “Sad, Sad Song,” part of a long string of, well, sad songs. Meanwhile, Ward masterly plays with style and genre, mashing ideas together until we arrive at a sound that is all his own. “Sad, Sad Song” rolls along in vibrating organ and bouncy drums, Ward’s voice becoming the spokesman for the sadness of all the world.
On the song “Dead Man” we get a sense of Ward’s way of processing all the world’s sadness. In a lovely-stripped down acoustic song that sounds like our ears are pressed against his guitar strings, the artist comforts us in breathy, soulful timbre. He tells the “dead man” to not cry, that there is more to life than just this cycle of pain and dissolution:
“Dead man, dead man don’t cry
Dead man, dead man don’t cry, don’t cry
When you die it ain’t the end
It ain’t the end when you die
Dead man, dead man be brave
Dead man, dead man be brave, be brave
You shall be saved by and by
By and by you shall be saved”
Perhaps this song is meant to reassure all the sadness that Ward documents on the album, especially on such heartbreaking tracks as “Outta My Head” and “Undertaker.” Nevertheless, Ward sings with the confidence of a priest, informing all the oppressed and tortured of the world that there is a resolution to this suffering. But Ward has never shied away from such statements, making similar claims on such songs as “Blake’s View” from 2009’s “Hold Time.” (Death is just a door / Blake said it first…) In this way the songwriter gives his work an almost religious poise, standing in the indie world as a prophet for those who suffer and yearn for redemption.
This redemption that Ward promises is even implied in the title of the album itself. The word transfiguration is defined as such:
a : a change in form or appearance : metamorphosis
b : an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change
Through this we find that Ward sees his recently passed friend in a different light, that of metamorphosis into a spiritual state. Instead of death merely being the dissolution of the physical decay of the body, it is redefined as a change from one state to another, a transfiguration into what some would say is a better state. The religious implications of such a belief are endless, and we are left asking whether or not such a transformation is possible.
Yet the artist leaves that part up to us. The mystical side of Ward seeps through the veins of his songs, often exploring the darkest tribulations of humanity while also seeking spiritual experience through that darkness. Not many other artists have a song about a death wish after heartbreak (“Undertaker”) and a plea for a higher power when this life is over (“A Voice at the End of the Line”) on the same album.
Along with the potent subject matter, it’s Ward’s mastery of sound and atmosphere that continue to bring me back to “Transfiguration of Vincent.” His voice is gruff at times, but other times it possesses an otherworldly beauty that soothes without remorse. His song arrangements always surprise with their kaleidoscope of styles and sounds, breathing life and a sense of mystery into each track. I find, after many listens, that these songs are transformative in nature, and that maybe Ward even has the power to transfigure the listener in the process.