M Ward’s album of Billie Holiday covers, Think of Spring, does away with the strings and brass of the originals and forces them through a solitary guitar. The album is intimate, as Ward’s always are, and that is borne out of the singer-songwriter’s decision to use a minimal amount of textures and studio manipulation. Think of Spring is a love letter to Holiday’s 1958 LP Lady In Satin but also to just sitting down with a guitar, playing and singing.
Ward confesses himself that Holiday was a muse to him, saying he first heard her voice, which he describes as “some other-world thing floating there on this strange mournful ocean of strings”, around 20 years ago across a San Francisco mall. From that moment, Ward was “hooked for life” and it is obvious this is a pet-project. Here, Ward leaves the compositions and lyrics well alone but instead plays around with guitar tunings (apparently ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ is in an Open B…) all the time stretching the limits of what one man and a guitar can do. Occasionally, he over-stretches and the songs become a tad turgid. But mostly they are engrossing homages to the originals.
Released towards the end of an incredible year, Think of Spring is a soothing presence. And even more salving is the fact that proceeds of this record will benefit various charities (specifically, Inner-City Arts, DonorsChoose and the Black Lives Fund).
However, the trouble with M Ward covering Billie Holiday is that he isn’t Billie Holiday. Nobody is. And so, these versions (whilst pleasant and inventive) are lacking something. Listening back to Holiday’s recordings, the things that make the songs great are her rasping voice and her presence, not the song’s themselves.
These are covers that are nice, if not life-changing. In short, these are covers that drive you back to the originals. If Ward’s intention was to bring attention to the brilliance of Holiday’s music, he has certainly done that, but it may be at his own cost.