Album Review: M. Ward ‘A Wasteland Companion’
M. Ward is one of those consummate and prolific songwriters who doesn’t miss a beat, and for whom the art of crafting a deceptively simple and quietly brilliant tune for the guitar seems to be completely natural. Like most who could warrant such a description, he tends to go relatively unnoticed, often choosing to take a backseat to the music or to his collaborators. The man has no less been busy, whether writing, performing, or promoting his music; In the last five years he has been a part of four different acts putting out eight different releases, including three as the surprisingly enjoyable She & Him with Zooey Deschanel.
On his own again for the first time in what feels like a lot longer than three years, M. Ward’s A Wasteland Companion is a record of sweet and unexpectedly cheerful songs. Unexpected only because you would probably not expect a whole lot of positivity from a record with a name like A Wasteland Companion, but this is likely Ward’s most uplifting work.
‘Clean Slate’ begins the album with soft, woodsy guitar, and a possible double meaning pertaining not only to starting over with love and interpersonal relationships, but perhaps also the fact that it’s been a while since he has put out a solo record. It’s a song which seems to come from a place of sadness or struggle, but looks only forward to a brighter future, perfectly presenting the juxtaposition between the tone and name of the record.
From there it shifts to a fun, much more poppy sound in ‘Primitive Girl’. Together these two songs showcase M. Ward’s two great strengths, of intricate guitar plucking on the opener, and AM radio pop in this case. It’s a good song, but it’s also the one track on the album that really doesn’t seem to fit in very well.
That aside, the record has a great flow to it, as it weaves between the subtle tunes and the more direct, holding mostly to the former. The common thread between all of these songs is Ward’s unique, indie-oldies style, which importantly does not ignore modern additions to our musical nomenclature. He doesn’t infuse modern music with a throwback style, but begins in that past era and advances it as if it were really where he comes from. It probably is.
Zooey Deschanel’s voice is featured on two early songs: ‘Me And My Shadow’ and ‘Sweetheart’, the latter of which may be better than any of their combined work as She & Him. It’s as if he wanted to point out both that he isn’t done with that collaboration, and that there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two acts.
M. Ward’s voice can be very soft and ethereal, but also quite rough and gravely when he needs it to be. He is probably more underrated as a singer than he is as a guitarist. He takes on a slightly different voice for almost every song, and the difference this alone makes in keeping things from ever dragging is remarkable.
The title track is one of Ward’s best, and appropriately, one of his most subtle. It’s really only about a minute long, with the rest of its 2:54 a serenade of uneasy guitar over crowd noises and buzzing, anxious strings. Few people would or could put together such a short song that is so complete an experience.
‘Watch The Show’ stands out for its somewhat strange story of a man taking over the airwaves at a television station to bemoan his job. The choices of words here are kind of awkward, almost as if M. Ward is trying to make musical an actual transcript of a hijacked broadcast, which lends a strange and disturbing credibility to the song.
The closing track, ‘Pure Joy’, seems to explain the album’s title. M. Ward speaks of feeling that he was being weighed down by depression, but coming to the realization that this is actually a time of joy for him, perfectly connecting it to the message of ‘Clean Slate’. He overcame whatever had plagued him, flipped a switch, and chose to see the world instead at its best and brightest. A great ending for A Wasteland Companion, a feel-good thesis on feeling bad.