We all have contemplated what if scenarios at least once in our lives, and some are truly poignant and others not so much. But what if Lauren Ruth Ward was born in the ’60s and performed in the ’70s? How big would her star be? With her Joni Mitchell-esque folk-rock background and now a bone-jarring, blues- and southern-rock approach that in the Janis Joplin mould, there’s little doubt she would be looked upon today as one of music’s iconic artists. Unfortunately, not all things in life are fair, but Ward has plenty of time to re-write history. It commences with, Well, Hell, her edgy, witty, and intelligent debut album.
Although the record has a retro vibe, Ward’s lyrics are completely 21st Century. Well, Hell isn’t a lovey, gushy, please-save-me-big-boy LP. Quite the opposite, it’s a 31-minute ode to the power of woman and one in particular – Ward herself. The slow-building folk-rocker “Make Love To Myself” and the rollicking “Sideways” demonstrate her perseverance and individuality. On the former, Ward proclaims she’s “the real McCoy” and doesn’t need anyone to keep her safe, warm, and pleasured. She’s her own woman. Meanwhile, she reflects on her delayed start to her music career and, like many artists, the struggles to balance her desired career with a paying job. The imagery in her lyrics are outstanding.
“My disciples are only happy when I’m leading,
Saying ‘it’s too late to be a crooner.’
I’m okay with
Being a late bloomer.”
She saves her best songwriting, however, on the fiery and fierce “Blue Collar Sex Kitten”. Throughout this four-and-half minute epic, she challenges every notion of what is real and not and what truly is important. Are we willing to free ourselves from the chains or just be another blue collar sex kitten to be taken advantage of? For Ward, she’s tired with playing games, and she’s decided to be herself. As she emphatically states, “I’m a dyke, dated guys, ain’t a crime, won’t apologize for my tribe.”
The melancholic opener, “Staff Only”, is equally eye-opening in its lyrical content. A dark and foreboding atmosphere fills the air, which is akin to the music one would expect to hear in a Tarantino film as the protagonist enters an abandoned church in the middle of the desert. Ward’s words, too, strike a tone of the award-winning director and screenplay writer, as she describes one woman’s life filled with ridicule, abuse, and pain. Yet through it all, she’s the one who shows strength while her tormentors are the ones demonstrating weakness.
“You’ve got a sign on your heart that says ‘Staff Only’.
A Band-Aid life, you’re just staying high and lonely.
Oh go on and treat me bad;
I said now go on and treat me bad.
Oh go on and treat me bad!
Treat me bad.
Treat yourself bad.”
There are moments, however, where Ward does reveal her own “weakness”, such as on the country-folk number “Sheet Stains”. The tune is Ward dealing with the absence of her partner and desiring her touch. A different kind of weakness sets in on the gentle yet stirring folk numbers that are interspersed throughout the album. Ward’s heart crumbles upon learning that someone close has been stricken with cancer (“Those Letters”) while thoughts of her oppressive childhood begin to weigh her down (“Travel Man”).
In the end, though, nothing will stop Ward from being herself and doing what her heart desires, and this is revealed on her personal anthem, “Well, Hell”. This ’70s, flame-throwing, blues-rock juggernaut is Ward unleashed. Her heroes aren’t her parents, but instead she finds inspiration in Bowie and Elvis. However, her best lyrics are saved for her visits to the therapists, who, unlike others, won’t judge her. As she wickedly describes:
“Maybe I should see my therapist,
She makes me feel sane.
I didn’t mean to make your head spin.
I have a lot to say.”
While some may not be listening, the rest of world is – or should be because an album this smart, sharp, and transparent rarely comes along. Despite the difficulties stories shared, Well, Hell is a celebration of the human spirit and soul. It’s a recognition that even through the most challenging of circumstances, especially situations created by those who should be supporting us, we can overcome. Such messages were prevalent four decades ago, and Lauren Ruth Ward is bringing them back to us. She is, in her own, re-writing history.
Ward’s band includes Eduardo Rivera (guitar and long-time songwriting partner), Liv Slingerland (bass), and India Pascucci (drums).
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