REVIEW: M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion

Artist: M. Ward
Album: A Wasteland Companion
Genre: Indie/Folk/Rock
Labe: Merge

In my life, there are very few certainties. Off the top of my head, the only three that I can think of are as follows:

  1. I have never met a cat I didn’t want to take home.
  2. I will put off doing my dishes as long as humanly possible.
  3. When M. Ward speaks, he has my undivided attention.

The man is wise beyond his mere thirty-eight years. The depth of the lyric that span the liner notes of his discography would imply that he had lived the life of Methuselah. His words suggest that he’s experienced life in a manner that is honestly only indicative of a man who has lived to the fullest. Put simply, he is a poet among posers. He doesn’t only paint pictures of life in pretty melodies, he seems to also participate in the journey.

This life approach genuinely translates into an honesty most artists never manage to approach, let alone master.

A Wasteland Companion, the latest album by Ward, starts and stops with that depth. The album is laced with ghosts of better times for music. “Clean Slate” for example, spooks up the spirits of Sun Records and their forgotten dance hall tours. Buried beneath the Americana twang and slide guitar, Ward’s lyrics paint pictures of personal growth. The simple, unaltered sounds sweep through your speakers, turning any room into The Ryman and making every listen reminiscent of a vintage radio program.

This trend continues into the following track, “Primitive Girl.” Regardless of the fact that it is a somewhat unpopular vote, I have always been of the opinion that Ward was the vintage to Zooey Daschanel’s thrift store. Ward seems to confirm this theory, conjuring up particles of dust from old records by The Bangles and Traveling Wilburys to create a catchy and carefree single. The song is molded perfectly for radio play. However, not to the dated,  the song’s fade out is packaged with a stand alone hidden track that blends into “Me and My Shadow.” The construction of this reminds me of older Rilo Kiley, namely on The Execution of All Things (see, “My Slumbering Heart”.)

“Sweetheart” and “I Get Ideas,” A Wasteland Companion’s next two cuts, continue to skip down the street toward the town’s bi-annual sock-hop. Both track could easily have been written for poodle skirt prom parties or Beach Party soundtracks. Though, Daschanel lends her vocals to “Sweetheart,” “I Get Ideas” honestly strikes me as the stronger of the two tracks. Lyrically, the song is a gem and the guitar whines as much as Ward regarding his ideas.

It is at this point, (track six for those keeping score at home) that A Wasteland Companion shifts significantly. Honestly, the separation feels intentional. It almost appears as though Ward consciously created rift in the songs, forming a distinct side a and side b to the album. “The First Time I Ran Away” seems to be a well formed version of the songs John Mayer always wished he could have written. With soft lyrics telling the story over the beautifully complicated acoustic riffs, Ward’s music could easily find the path to listeners who might otherwise overlook it. The album’s title track, which rests next on the desk, follow suit, building on the combo of a short story and long outro. This exit held my attention through multiple listens as its placement of crowd noises behind strings and guitar is strikingly gorgeous. Ward uses this attention catching tool to transition into the angry and jagged “Watch The Show.” This song stands out to me as the best songwriting on the disk. Ward, speaking through Billy, the song’s narrator, constructs a depressing plot that could manage to even make E of the Eels rethink how awful his life is. Fed up with his punch the clock life, Billy hijacks the television station that he has spent the last 30 years working for. His thankless job of adding the laugh tracks to tv shows is self-determined to be a waste of time. As a response, Billy wants his time back.  Through the lyrics, he recalls how he “thought I’d be the guy unmasking the clown, not the guy who is polishing his nose.”

The song ends as suddenly as it starts, leaving no resolution to the plot. Ward allows the listener to jump to their own conclusions as to where the journey ends up. Suicide? Murder? Mass fits of rage? A simple thank you? It is left for you to decide. It would seem that by the end of the song, Ward’s creation is ruled by who you would have him be inside your head and therefore, becomes a piece of you.

To me, that concept is as beautiful as the album and as reflective of Ward’s brilliance as possible. A Wasteland Companion is another gold star for an already stellar catalog.

SCORE: 8/10
Review written by: Josh Hammond (Twitter)

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