Having recently been tied up working with Zooey Deschanel, as any rational man would be wont to do, Matt Ward has finally found some time for himself. He hasn’t completely left the tractor beam (Ms. Deschanel lends guest vocals to the album) but it seems he has been able to isolate himself from her cuteness long enough to write some songs that are, gasp, not poppy. The bubblegum pop is still there, mind you, and it is as fun and forgettable as ever. But those tracks are offset by the sullen, country-folk gems that M. Ward’s sound is built for. A Wasteland Companion is a slight but very enjoyable album that has moments of bliss along with moments of inoffensive filler. It is not an album meant to reinvigorate your belief in the awe-inspiring power of music. Instead, it is meant to remind you of the simple pleasure of a well written song.
“Clean Slate”, the album’s opening track, is a proper way for Ward to re-enter the lives of his listeners. It’s built around a lovely, multi-layered guitar melody that rests comfortably alongside Ward’s rustic falsetto. It’s a song that understands its strengths. Most notably, that voice, which is distinctly Ward’s and is the centerpiece of his sound. It is versatile: on “Watch the Show” one can hear a heavy dose of Tom Wait’s and throughout there are intermittent traces of Taylor Kirk (Timber Timbre) and Erick Jordan (The Rosewood Thieves). On tracks like “Clean Slate”, when it is just a man and his guitar, the voice needs to carry a certain emotional weight. Ward does this well, sounding contemplative but optimistic. Moving forward, however, the majority of the first half of the album is all rhythm and sunshine.
She & Him reunite for “Sweetheart”, a song that is, to quote Zooey Deschanel’s recent television program, “adorkable”. It’s a careful re-imagining of early 60′s pop that is sweet and carefree. I imagine it was written at a drive-through theater in the midst of Ward trying to convince Zooey to hop in the back of his T-bird. Although it is hardly recognizable in its new form, “Sweetheart” is originally a Daniel Johnston song. Ward has covered the enigmatic artist before and was recently quoted saying he thinks Johnston’s “songs are just as good as John Lennon’s”. Ward is able to reinterpret Johnston in an interesting way (drawing out the pop sensibilities and building a polished arrangement from there) but he loses the rawness that made the original so fascinating. “I Get Ideas” carries on the Brill Building sound and while there is something enjoyable in its breeziness it does not stand up to the quality of the tracks that follow it.
At heart, Ward has a proclivity for earthy, soulful tracks. Tracks that are the musical outgrowths of the ropes that tie the artist to the oddities that make him or her human. This is why the second half of the album is more successful. He finds a groove in which he is able to balance dark and light―meditative and hopeful. This begins with “The First Time I Ran Away”, a simple and delicately written song. The accompaniment slowly becomes more dense creating a lush backdrop as Ward builds toward the lyrical climax: “the last time I run away I hope its with you”. On “Watch the Show” Ward sings as Billy R. Boroughs, a disgruntled network television employee who has hijacked the station and is now airing his grievances. Boroughs, over a dark and rumbling country melody, recounts his life’s failure, noting that in high school he “ thought [he'd] be the guy unmasking the clown. Not the guy out polishing his nose”. It’s a potent sentiment; but instead of staying in that vein Ward uses the last three songs to quietly reflect on his blessings.
“There’s a Key” is probably the most straightforward song on the album but in many ways it is the most affecting. As Ward sings “when I am stuck between what we have done and what we are going to do” he hangs for a few beats on the last word, as his voice follows the downward chord change. Singer-songwriters often forget that those simple progressions, those brief and beautiful moments, can be an anchor point for a listener’s relationship with an album. When recalled, those lovely four seconds can make the whole album worth listening to again. As the song continues on it delivers on the promise created by its early atmosphere. Ward tells a loved one that “there is a key on his piano that he plays for you”. It sounds contrived on paper but when it is sung by Ward and accompanied by a melancholy picking pattern it feels achingly intimate.
In a recent interview interview M. Ward said “[he] likes the idea that a song can change as it grows older. A song can initially mean one thing and then take on new layers of meaning as time passes”. This encapsulates the kind of musician that he is. Patient and methodical, he waits for the sound that he is searching for to materialize. A Wastleand Companion is what happens when he finds it. It may not set the world on fire but it will certainly please those who already love him. And that is surely what he was hoping for anyway.
Stream ‘A Wasteland Companion’ in its entirety here.