A new M. Ward album has become something of a warm blanket for music lovers. They’ve become as reliable as the promise of the morning sun, and on A Wasteland Companion, Ward rises to the occasion. In recent years, his niche audience has grown cautious as he’s churned out records seemingly tailored to the hip soccer mom set under the She & Him moniker. With this latest outing, Ward lays all those fears to rest by putting forth one of his best solo efforts, while still incorporating the elements that made She & Him such a crossover success (aka nostalgia-drenched pop songs and Zooey Deschanel’s vocals).
The mostly somber affair on Ward’s last outing, Hold Time, became bogged down by a sameness that let one song bleed into another, but with A Wasteland Companion, Ward strikes the perfect balance between his heartbreaking ballads and the pop swing he’s capable of, like on his classic 2006 track, “Rollercoaster”. His melodies can reach the tallest heights of the pop songbook, alongside his contemporary rivals Andrew Bird, Bill Callahan, and Cass McCombs, all of whom have a lasting place as songwriters in the musical legacy of this fractured period. With that said, what follows is a master at his craft.
“Clean Slate (For Alex & El Goodo)”, an homage to the late great Alex Chilton, kicks off A Wasteland Companion with Ward channeling the Big Star tearjerker “Thirteen” with a countrified flair. Lead single “Primitive Girl”, a mid-tempo piano/keyboard-led track, follows and features some pretty harmonies but never really takes off. In the context of the album, “Primitive Girl” is fine, but as a single, it is one of Ward’s weaker tracks and not the album’s best entry point.
There is a manic quality in Ward’s music best exemplified on the road trip-ready rocker “Watch the Show” and the whiskey drunk piano ballad “Crawl After You”. These two standouts brilliantly illustrate Ward’s two faces. On “Watch the Show”, atop a rockabilly guitar crunch and a punchy drumbeat, Ward tells the tale of a misunderstood rocker named Billy Arthur Rose, singing, “I remember back when I was back in high school/I never thought I’d stoop so low/I thought I’d be the man unmasking the clown/Not the guy out polishing his nose.”
“Crawl After You”, among Ward’s most romantic ballads, floats on a church piano waltz before blooming into a swirl of violins, guitars, and synthesizers. Ward desperately yearns for his lost love singing, “I’ve been shook so bad that I cannot stand to utilize my feet/So I gotta crawl after you to tell you who I am.” The song is the perfect soundtrack to a sad, dusty, roadside dive bar, where it is easy to picture Ward penning his lyrics with a bourbon served neat resting in his hand.
And yes, indie darling Zooey Deschanel does appear on two A Wasteland Companion numbers. Don’t worry; she works inside the framework of an M. Ward solo album and doesn’t shift the style to the brightly colored folk/pop of She & Him. On “Me & My Shadow”, a track vaguely reminiscent of “Hotel California”, Deschanel’s backup vocals play second fiddle to Ward wildly jamming on his fuzzed-out Gretsch, providing proof that he is an extremely underrated guitar player. “Sweetheart” features a Beatles-esque melody with a country twist and has Deschanel and Ward dueting. Sadly, this one ranks alongside the two or three other lesser songs on an otherwise top-shelf album.
In the end, it’s the quieter moments of A Wasteland Companion that steal the show. Whether it’s the wistful introspection of “There’s a Key” and “Wild Goose” or the blissful folk of Ward finding a long lost love on album closer “Pure Joy”, it’s these moments that define him. A Wasteland Companion finds the melancholic Ward in fine form, and with this effort, he only further establishes his legacy as one of our under-appreciated greats.
Essential Tracks: Crawl After You, Watch the Show, Theres a Key, and Pure Joy