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Album review: M. Ward, 'A Wasteland Companion'

M Ward A Wasteland Companion

There are few musicians more iconic in the indie world than M. Ward. Whether he’s producing kitschy Christmas songs with Zooey Deschanel, contributing to supergroup Monsters of Folk, or redefining indie-folk with 13 years of his own albums, Ward is a force to be reckoned with. His last solo effort, Hold Time, was his most commercially successful to date, reaching #31 on the U.S. charts. In just a few days Ward will release his Hold Time follow-up, A Wasteland Companion.

A Wasteland Companion is easily the most ambient M. Ward album to date. The engrossing folk-pop guitar work of earlier albums gives way to gentler, almost atmospheric instrumentals. At its best, it’s an album of simple, docile elements coming together to form complex moments. When everything doesn’t fit perfectly, though, its softness gets a little precious, tedious, even boring.

The previously released “The First Time I Ran Away” falls into the former, successful category. The melodic guitar, steady drums, and softly bending strings are all unassuming enough on their own, but they grow together into a forest of sound. Meanwhile Ward crafts a parable about youthful exploration using some particularly mellow vocals, even for him. Each instrument, Ward’s voice, and the story itself all come together to paint a picture of tranquility.

Ward uses some of those same techniques to less avail on tracks like the opener “Clean Slate”. The song is mostly just Ward’s sleepy vocals over a guitar, softly chugging along. Unlike the “The First Time I Ran Away”, “Clean Slate” never quite coheres, and the mild elements descend into dullness. Track three, “Me and My Shadow” starts out like “Clean Slate”, with a minute or two of flat, docile guitar and singing. At a certain point, though, there’s a quick shift, the passive guitar becomes active, Ward’s vocals suddenly intensify, and some backup vocals, a heavy drumbeat, and a wave of distortion enter. For its second half, “Me and My Shadow” is one of the album’s most dynamic, impressive tracks, reaching moments of unique action amid several fairly inert songs. The single, “Primitive Girl”, finds a pleasant middle ground between the album’s passive and active moments. Ward perks up a bit to energetically sing the love song over two keyboard parts – one repeating a simple chord progression, the other leading emphatically – a dense drumbeat, and sweeping strings. The track comes together beautifully, again forming a complex whole of fairly simple parts.

There are also tracks like “Sweetheart” – melodic, retro love songs that don’t obviously fit with the rest of the album. It’s a modern take on a classic 50s style pop song, with Ward singing over do-wop back-up, clapping interludes, slowly building drums, and some early rock guitar. From time to time there’s a key change and a sort of throwback island beat comes in accompanied by a surf guitar track while the She to Ward’s Him – Zooey Deschanel – supplies guest vocals.

A Wasteland Companion is due out on April 6 overseas and on April 10 in the U.S. via Merge/Bella Union. Listen to “The First Time I Ran Away” and “Primative Girl” below.