M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion
Portland-based indie-darling M. Ward has always been one of our favourite artists among the seemingly endless pool of generic hipster-singer songwriters, as he offers something that both lyrically and musically distinguishes him from the pack. Musicians these days often have a bevy of side projects that sometimes seem to overshadow their solo efforts and M. Ward is no exception. While he is better known in some circles for his collaborations, She and Him (with it-girl-of-the-moment Zooey Deschanel) which is undeniably charming in its own right, and the Masters of Folk supergroup, we’ve always been bigger fans of Ward’s solo efforts. His latest album, A Wasteland Companion, is an enigmatic offering that defies classification and has quickly made its way to the top of our iPhone indie/troubadour playlist.
A Wasteland Companion embraces the full slate of human emotion from joy to despair, while Ward’s soft, vulnerable vocals and elegant folk guitar are prominently featured on every track. Equal parts bluegrass, folk, “wall of sound” pop, Bob Dylan and roots, M. Ward is unfailingly hard to categorize and this very diverse album alternates between up-tempo pop songs and more sombre ballads. Although the familiarity and consistency of Ward’s studio albums are a significant part of their appeal, and the sense of whistful longing that we’ve come to expect from him is very much palpable, the songs avoid feeling too derivative and overall the album sounds new and fresh. His ability to combine the best of Brill Building pop with very contemporary sounds and arrangements elevates the album above mere nostalgia vehicle or homage, and Ward has never better expressed this mashup of old and new than on A Wasteland Companion.
“Crawl After You” is one of the best tracks on the album; the despondent, piano-driven balled is the perfect tune for a summer road trip, replete with longing and regret. In fact, the entire album has a dreamy, introspective quality that seems well suited for warm summer nights. “Primitive Girl”, the most up-tempo and conventional pop song on A Wasteland Companion, has an extremely catchy piano hook that will get stuck in your head for days. Yet not satisfied with producing a pleasing, if predictable, pop gem, Ward transitions to a slower, more gravelly sound in the last minute of the song, creating two very distinct pieces – yet somehow the juxtaposition works. “Sweetheart”, featuring Deschanal, sounds so reminiscent of a saccharine 1950s pop song that we immediately assumed it was a cover. Positioned in the middle of the album it offers a momentary respite from the dark and moody folk offerings that make up much of the record and is a placement that contributes greatly to the pacing of the album. The closing song, “Pure Joy”, is our personal favourite. Upbeat with a rockabilly sensibility, “Pure Joy” is more optimistic and buoyant than the rest and is the perfect way to conclude the album.
In articulating the melancholic, that liminal emotional state that exists somewhere between the expansive continuum of sad and happy, Ward is really at his best. He is a gifted storyteller and has the capacity to transport his listeners to a different time and place through his music. A Wasteland Companion is an eclectic album, the perfect vehicle to display Ward’s impressive songwriting skills and his gravelly, bordering on old-school crooner vocal stylings. His soft sounds, and atmospheric, moody vocals about life’s simple pleasures and disappointments resonate. At a short 37 minutes, A Wasteland Companion will leave you wanting more.