REVIEW: M. Ward’s “Think of Spring” Captures Billie Holiday’s Mysterious Sadness

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During what may become known as the Year of Covers, many musicians have gone against type to recreate songs by beloved artists outside their own comfort zone, often with great success. Few, though, have sought to reinterpret entire albums by a single artist. For his second release of 2020 (following April’s Migration Stories), M. Ward recorded his take on Billie Holiday’s 1958 album Lady in Satin, giving us a modern, individualistic look at Lady Day’s collection of deeply sad love songs.

At first glance (and probably second and third), Holiday to Ward wouldn’t seem to be an easy crossover to make. Holiday died more than 14 years before Ward was born (Ward is actually three years older than Holiday was when she passed). Holiday was a Northeasterner, Ward a Left Coaster. Holiday’s voice was a beautiful instrument which both towered over and melted into her lush arrangements, while Ward is typically more spare and folk-y. But Ward has been a Billie Holiday fan since his early 20s, when he heard Lady in Satin playing across a large shopping mall and initially mistook her voice for “a beautiful, perfectly-distorted electric guitar.” Odd? Perhaps. But Holiday was not a singer known for simply belting out notes, but adding incredible depth to the songs she sang. Ward’s voice, somewhere between a warble and a croon, is augmented here not by a full band, but simply his own guitar with alternate tunings and almost no studio enhancements.

So, how did it turn out? About as you’d expect M. Ward covering Billie Holiday to sound. Ward squeezes down the big-room arrangements and filters them through his guitar, while keeping all of the mysterious sadness that Holiday originally brought to the songs. “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (a Hoagy Carmichael tune inspired by a poem by Jane Brown-Thompson which, in turn, loaned its title to this album) gives us a distraught lover in denial – “I’ve forgotten you just like I should/Of course I have.” “For Heaven’s Sake” features double-tracked vocals, and Ward’s guitar work really stands out on “It’s Easy to Remember.” Likewise, the guitar – Ward’s answer to the instrumental quality of Holiday’s voice – lends an intriguing Southwestern feel to “I’m A Fool to Want You.”

Ward does allow his voice to make its mark on the record. “Violets for Your Furs” features falsetto and some echo effects, and “I’ll Be Around” concludes on a wistful fade on the line “from now on.” But the record’s highlight is its last track, “You Don’t Know What Love is.” Ward turns Holiday’s typically gorgeous arrangement into an ominous slow burn as he lists all of the terrible ways we experience love – “Until you’ve loved a love you have to lose/You don’t know what
love is.” It’s here that Ward most closely channels the beauty and pain in Holiday’s tragically short life, and it’s a true showing of the affection that the songwriter holds for the singer.

Think of Spring was arranged, produced, and performed by M. Ward, engineered by Ward and Pierre Dereeder and mixed by Dereeder and Mike Coykendall.

Go here to order Think of Spring: https://mward.store-08.com/music

Proceeds from Think of Spring will benefit Inner-City Arts & DonorsChoose via PLUS1 for Black Lives Fund: https://plus1.org

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