The types of songs that M. Ward performs haven”t changed much particularly over these last three solo efforts, but it”s the airs or atmospheres over each that morph.
The title “A Wasteland Companion” conjures the images of coarse terrain in even lonelier territory, but his companions on here are abundant, bringing their gifts into his blues-structured thumpers, the AM Pop, power pop, chalky folk, Sunday afternoon ballads and spiritual odes, none of which go over the 4-minute mark. The songwriter”s frequent collaborator and Monsters of Folk cohort Mike Mogis is back, as are characters like early supporter Howe Gelb and touring staple Mike Coykendall. Zooey Deschanel – one half of the She & Him equation – provides harmonies on some of the most pop-oriented tunes (natch), her contributions obviously serving fanbases of both her band and those who have come to love Ward after their inception.
While those fatter, cleaner pop songs can be more whimsical, even glamorous (!!), I”m ultimately more interested in the darker environs of Ward”s murkier tunes. This could be summarized, in part, by lyrics from “There’s a Key”: “I’m conquering the ocean one wave at the time… taking on the deep, deep blue.”
The album”s title track features the positive reinforcement of negative space, ominously segueing into narrative “Watch the Show.” The lyrics of that song introduce a paranoid, self-aggrandizing anti-hero, who brings something delicious and wrong into the mix of gnarly amp effects. Blissfully short blues bruiser “Me and My Shadow” may have Jack White checking his date book, while “Wild Goose” could have stood up on its own as a cinematic instrumental.
The songwriter also taps back into the well that generated “A Chinese Translation” from “Post-War” with “The First Time I Ran Away,” a heart-massaging, three-minute slice of nostalgia with the low end bubbling up like from memories. His fluid voice again perfectly pokes through with echoes and indefinite syllables, the epitome of a West Coast drawl if there ever was one.
Where the album sometimes fails is when Ward”s prowess as a producer fails his more urgent (and intimate) tunes. “Primitive Girl” just sounds false, like a pair of pre-distressed jeans, as his effortless guitar parts are drowned out by the chonk-chonk-chonk of piano. He kills the Daniel Johnston cover “Sweetheart” with too much kindness, erasing any unrefined moments into a wallpapery pop amalgam. Opener “Clean Slate” and finale “Pure Joy” feel so close and familiar, and yet the album”s first half seems to treat the listener as mere acquaintance, a failure in cohesion on the part of M. Ward, Producer.
This all to say that there are several graceful new additions to Ward”s canon from “A Wasteland Companion,” it just doesn”t always work together for an interconnected, unified album. At times, the wasteland is just a string of islands.