It’s a great concept for pandemic art: Take Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin (1958), the last album the legendary jazz vocalist released before dying, and recreate it at home. How? If you’re Matt Ward, for his latest album, Think of Spring, instead of using a 40-piece orchestra, you grab an acoustic guitar and a handful of open tunings. Instead of booking Columbia Records’ best studio, you overdub yourself on an analog Tascam four-track. Instead of reaching for commercial success, you’ll sing with whatever voice you have—even if, like Holiday’s, it’s not very pretty.
These aren’t sad songs, but Holiday knew how to find the melancholy in couplets like, “For all we know, we may never meet again/Before you go, make this moment sweet again.” Ward knows it too, which gives his “For All We Know” a special sense of fragility, letting his guitar lag slightly behind the beat and asking his voice to reach notes that are almost beyond his range. In a simple, barely sketched arrangement, he strums with a percussive snap, slowing down and speeding up, and doesn’t start his solo until the last 30 seconds, as if there’s nothing left to be said.
For the achingly sad/sweet “But Beautiful,” Ward sets the rhythm with a short, plaintive series of upbeats, plucking one or two strings at a time, shifting slightly to imply a new chord, and bravely soldiering through a series of unexpected notes, as if unsure whether love is good or bad. Through it all, his voice is a growl, a cry, a promise, a prayer—it’s a masterfully vulnerable, elegantly rough, and timeless performance.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.