Buckle up and get ready for a thrill ride. ZZ Ward’s Dirty Shine takes listeners through the wild and wooly musical landscape that the Oregon-raised performer inhabits at this stage in her musical journey and, by god, she’s not making any apologies. You accept her as she is or move on. She’s enlisted a rough and ready crew to realize her musical aspirations for this release and they play with rock-em-sock-em abandon that audibly inspires Ward during every cut. She’s working with outstanding collaborators who match her intensity each step of the way and drive her to heights of creative expression she hasn’t scaled until now. Dirty Shine is the sound of ZZ Ward unleashed, in full, and god help anyone who stands in her way.
She lulls you into a false sense of security, on one hand, while flashing from the start some of the surprise that becomes this album’s hallmark. “Ride or Die” sounds like it’s teetering on the precipice of a full-on romp, you expect it to erupt any second, but Ward plays her cards close to her vest. We get our first taste of the album’s iconoclastic edge, however, with Vic Mensa’s hip-hop contributions to the song.
Ward dials up the intensity with the album’s second cut. “Fadeaway” introduces harmonica, a stalwart instrument in Ward’s toolkit, but it’s not like most harmonica you’ve heard. The “dirty” spirit of the album’s songs emerges in moments like this as the harp roars with filthy fire that cuts through the speakers. She doesn’t rely on it, however, and imposes her will on listeners with an authoritative yet soulful vocal that’s impossible to forget. “On One” made a big impression on many listeners as a standalone single and works even better in the context of a full-length album. It’s here where we feel the album’s full potential begin to explode as Ward hits us with swagger for days and a clear sense of direction that overpowers the rowdy arrangement and red-lined production.
The yearning neo-soul and R&B leanings of “Forget About Us” take on a whole new tint filtered through Ward’s particular sensibility. Motown or Memphis this isn’t. It’s ninety-nine degrees in the shade knife-edge soul steered by a powerful vocalist at the height of her powers. Alternating between its spartan verses and wider cinematic passages spotlights the song’s dynamics. She manages to raise the temperature even higher with “Friends Like These”, a wrathful blues that draws blood from the first and never relents. You don’t want on this woman’s bad side. Ever. Its ferocious arrangement juggles several bluesy elements peppered with genuine rock fervor.
“Cut Me Loose” takes the preceding peaks a step further. Its near-industrial blues churn benefits from a plethora of studio-cooked effects while keeping its identity as a song. It doesn’t ever sound like self-indulgent experimentation. Ward’s voice anchors this left-field endeavor, braying with its bluesy passion, and inhabiting every line. This is an album that’s all killer, no filler. Ward assembled a five-star collection of tracks for her first album in over half a decade and Dirty Shine proves well worth the wait.