Listening to ZZ Ward’s debut album is a lot like sipping a good whiskey: it burns the throat just a bit but it always goes down smooth. Til the Casket Drops certainly lives up to its title’s Johnny Cash-esque imagery, not to mention its creator’s badass name. Having never heard Ward’s music before, I came into my first listen imagining ZZ Top as fronted by M. Ward (how damn weird would that be?) and instead heard a songwriter talented well beyond her years and a vocalist with the chops to back up her ambitious blend of bravado and sultry charm. It doesn’t hurt that she’s able to nimbly move from guitar to piano to harmonica without any discernible drop-off. That type of versatility might explain why none of the many collaborations on the album seem forced.
A family member gchatted me after giving the record a spin, calling it “one of those no skips necessary” albums, a rare feat for a musician to pull off on her first full-length. Deftly combining elements of hip-hop, blues, and soul, Ms. Ward has crafted a sturdy debut album without a weak track to be found. The best cut is probably “Cryin Wolf,” a mid-tempo blues stomper about telling an abusive lover his empty threats are no longer frightening. The track even finds room for an excellent guest verse by rap’s current golden boy, Kendrick Lamar. This should come as no surprise considering Ward offered her own lyrical take on Lamar’s track, “Look Out for Detox,” on her February mixtape, Eleven Roses (Her version’s called “OVERdue”). I’m telling you, Ward contains multitudes. The up-and-coming Midwest-based rapper Freddie Gibbs also shows up to drop a verse on “Criminal,” a song inspired by his own 2010 single, “Oil Money.” Ward wears her influences on her sleeve without falling slave to any in particular. Equal parts Amy Winehouse, the Black Keys, and Tina Turner, she wears them all well, especially on the penultimate track “Charlie Ain’t Home,” a song inspired by the Etta James classic “Waiting for Charlie to Come Home” in which Ward imagines what happens when a woman gets sick of waiting (SPOILER ALERT: She cheats on him).
Amidst the plethora of whoa oh oh’s and ooh ooh ooh’s and the immaculate production centered around mostly piano and acoustic guitar, the comparisons to Adele are inevitable. And while I agree that songs like “Put the Gun Down,” and “Til the Casket Drops” are reminiscent of “Rumour Has It” and “Rolling in the Deep,” Ward makes up for that similarity with her lyrical content and the force with which she layers her arrangements over hip-hop beats provided by an army of seasoned producers like Pete Rock and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. While Adele’s songs provide easy montage fodder for TV shows like “Glee” or “Smash,” you get the feeling that ZZ Ward would be more at home scoring a barroom brawl or a “Breaking Bad” meth cook.
Except for “Last Love Song,” which is the only thing approaching a ballad on the entire album. And even in this quiet moment centered right smack in the middle of the record, Ward is able to flex her lyrical muscles and show her strength in the face of the vulnerability of a relationship gone bad. The song bids farewell to its narrator’s innocence and the ideal of the American Dream with lines like, “We were never the marrying type” and “No more white picket fences,” although my favorite line has to be, “Take these roses and this Jameson, oh no / Find a subway that I can sit in, oh no / Buy a one-way out of this city / Everything that I need, got it with me.” This illustrates her unique ability to be brutally honest without coming across as too earnest or naive, a trick she also pulls off on “Blue Eyes Blind” with the lyrics, “There ain’t nobody taking your place / So you don’t have to worry / You got that good shit, darlin’ / Ain’t nobody gonna try to beat.” You can’t buy that kind of confidence, especially impressive for an artist who’s just 24 years old.
Til the Casket Drops is also dripping with not-so-subtle allusions to sex. On “Cryin Wolf,” Kendrick Lamar raps, “Don’t forget about the kinkiness of playing with the ‘cuffs on the bedspring / Penetrate the loud screams, echoing the hallway is a must.” And Ward goes tit for tat on “Move It Like U Stole It” when she sings, “Mmm, I want you in my bed in a minute flat / Let’s hit the backseat of your cherry Cadillac.” Mmm, let’s. This song makes you wanna hit the backseat of a Cadillac more than anything since “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” (Can somebody get Andre 3000 to drop a verse on this shit?).
This is definitely one of the best new albums of the year, joining Frank Ocean, The Lumineers, and Alabama Shakes in establishing a unique voice on a much hyped major label debut. You can tentatively pencil in Gary Clark, Jr. and Kendrick Lamar to this list as they prepare to drop Blak & Blu and good kid, m.A.A.d city, respectively, within the next week. Speaking of Gary Clark, Jr. (for whom Ward will open at the Bowery Ballroom on Nov. 5), ZZ Ward just might be the female yin to his modern blues yang. Ward herself has described her music as “dirty shine.” After giving Til the Casket Drops a few listens, there won’t be a doubt in your mind that she will do just that: shine.