ZZ Ward’s third album Dirty Shine is a pivotal moment in this artist’s career trajectory. It’s her first studio album in over six years and marks her first collection under her imprint Dirty Shine Records. Ward’s decision to break free from corporate control comes on the heels of motherhood and myriad other personal shifts that signal a rebirth for the Pennsylvania-born and Oregon-raised singer/songwriter. The album’s fourteen tracks still owe a considerable debt to her blues influences, but Ward has long since progressed beyond offering anything resembling a purist musical vision. The rambunctious potpourri of sounds she concocts for this release spans the gamut and finds her in full command of her considerable powers.
The brief introductory piece “Welcome to Dirty Shine” serves the purpose of a hinge on a door. It opens the remaining baker’s dozen worth of tracks to listeners with a compelling mix of neo-spaghetti western flavor and wordless yet evocative vocals. The first full-fledged song “Ride or Die” has a clipped acoustic guitar foundation, restless percussion, and the first of a handful of guest appearances. Vic Mensa counterpoints Ward’s customary soulful bray with his complementary hip-hop delivery and the pairing gives “Ride or Die” appealing low-key stylishness.
The heated churn of the verses for “Fadeaway” extends its breadth for an expansive chorus. Ward’s singing is a little straighter here than its predecessor as she resists adding any of her typical affectations. She never forces those affectations or plays them in an overwrought manner, but it illustrates the diversity of her approach that her vocals show such elasticity. The single “On One” is a fiery statement of purpose. It’s ZZ Ward in full flight, risking it all, and setting listeners ablaze with a torrid bluesy vamp crossed with rock attitude. It is not difficult to figure out why she chose this song to represent the release.
She does not clutter “Dead or Alive” as much, but it is cut from a similar cloth as “On One”. The cleaner thrust of this song highlights her vocals differently than the single, and she slips from the spartan verses into its hard-hitting chorus without missing a step. The pop and neo-blues synthesis of “Forget About Us” makes it one of the album’s likely sleeper gems. It is a condensed track, as well, that wastes no motion either lyrically or musically in its efforts to get over with Ward’s audience.
The eye-popping collision of blues, pop, and hip-hop powering “OverdoZZe” has infectious energy. Her distinctive personality comes through during every line and the arrangement overflows with tight physical turns that engage you physically. It is unquestionably one of the album’s highlights. The distorted harmonica is a crowning touch. “Don’t Let Me Down” closes Dirty Shine with a marriage of relentless pop deliciousness and a strong irresistibly bluesy touch. It’s an excellent finale for this inflamed reach for the stars. ZZ Ward is pushing herself like never before with Dirty Shine’s songs, and it pays off with her finest studio release yet.