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Bathtub moonshine

Haiya Sarwar

ZZ Ward
Til the Casket Drops
Hollywood Records, October 2012







ZZ Ward’s debut album Til the Casket Drops is the epitome of bathtub moonshine–gritty, pungent, and arrestingly melodious. Although signed with Hollywood Records, known for their work with the likes of Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus, Ward is anything but commercial—at least in a stereotypical sense.

Described as “dirty shine,” or a mix of hip-hop and back-porch blues, the Oregon native somehow makes the blues even bluer—but not in that mope around and cry about it way. With heart-waking beats and songs titled “Put the Gun Down” and “Criminal”, her blues is empowered with a powerful feminist spirit. Maybe even the twisted spirit of Toni Morrison’s infamous Sethe¬≠. (“Til the Casket Drops” did first make its national showcase via Pretty Little Liars, a show revolved around murder…) Of course, her songs aren’t actually about criminal activities. But with their dark tones and morbid metaphors, you can understand why her album comes marked with a parental warning.

Although gaining comparisons to Adele for her standout voice, with her hip-hop undertones and lyrics like “Don’t forget about the kinkiness of playing with the ’cuffs on the bedspring / Penetrate the loud screams, echoing the hallway is a must,” Ward’s style is very much from the other side of town. Testing genres and lyrics, Ward breaks away from the security of the mainstream with narratives too unconventionally raw and vivid to be boxed with those of any popular songstress. Sure, she’s a bit like Adele and Etta James, and undoubtedly like a hundred others too–but in a significant sense, she’s like none of them.

Singing and begging, “There ain’t no honey left in this heart / There ain’t no sugar nowhere inside / I hate to love ya / I love to hate ya / I just can’t shake you / Oh, please, please, please / Quit dragging my heart through them coals / Oh, please,” in the song “Lil Darlin,” it’s evident that the one person Ward can actually tightly be tied to is indeed Toni Morrison. Her album exudes Morrison, from the explicit imagery, to the stereotypically “Southern” tones, to the obsessiveness emphasised through repetition of words and addictive beats. For another example, in the song “Cryin Wolf” (a song about an abusive relationship), Ward sings “It’s like the devil just jumped up in your clothes / He put on your shoes and rolled / Thanks to you, I’m scared to be alone.” From the suppressive context to the allusion to Satan, the imagery is very evocative of stereotypical Morrison.

In her novels, Morrison writes about slavery in the literal sense. Ward writes of it in the metaphorical. Her entire album revolves around being enslaved to an obsessive love and the repercussions of clenching on “til the casket drops.” But most importantly, Morrison tends to build up narratives, adding tension like caustic ingredients, until everything blatantly erupts. And similarly, Ward builds up her narratives, singing them with an almost rap-like feel, until they burst into ultra-melodic hooks that grab your soul and sear it with emotion.

Ward understands the art of capturing and enrapturing an audience: this knack for writing hooks is actually how she began her career. Hence, despite cameos with the brilliant likes of Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs, Ward’s songs stay very much her own and would be just as great without their contributions. Not one song in her album is worth skipping. And that, especially in this day and age, is a feat in itself. Call it moonshine or dirty shine, this album’s shining brighter than a Grammy.

Haiya Sarwar is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.