M. Ward, Wasteland Companion
Over the past few years, Portland singer/songwriter Matt Ward (aka M. Ward) has become more famous for his various side projects than his own solo career. Ward sat in the backseat in his retro pop project She & Him with “New Girl” Zooey Deschanel, and he also didn’t get much limelight when he took part in Monsters of Folk, the super group folk trio formed with better-known folksters Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket fame). While lesser known in each project, M. Ward was no less vital, and I would even argue he is more responsible for Zooey’s musical success than Zooey herself for helping coach, produce and craft her songs. Now, a couple side projects later, M. Ward releases his first solo album in three years, Wasteland Companion, an album that is unmistakably M. Ward but doesn’t quite reach the heights of his best efforts.
“Clean Slate” appropriately opens the album on a gracious note, elaborating on the strength of second chances: When I was a younger man, I thought that pain and defeat would last forever / but now I don't know what it would take to make my heart back down. The strident, piano pop of “Primitive Girl” follows and is an irresistible, upbeat love song full of Ward’s one-of-a-kind charm. Ward takes on a very different note on “Me and My Shadow,” which starts as a simple wisdom-filled folk song with lines like It’s a wise man that can laugh at himself / with disaster at the end of the line before he begins strumming his guitar. It picks up steam into an all-out blitz of a song, full of distorted vocals, haunting harmonies, reverb-soaked drums and staticky surf-rock layers of guitar.
Like his last album, Hold Time, Wasteland Companion includes a taste of She & Him with “Sweetheart,” a twee pop song featuring Zooey Deschanel that by no means is terrible but simply feels out of place on an otherwise introspective effort. “Sweetheart” is followed by a cover of '50s jazz standard “I Get Ideas,” which he flips into rockabilly with Zooey again providing support as Ward summons the rollicking spirit of Carl Perkins. Even with a fresh take on the song, “I Get Ideas” feels a bit tired, especially when compared to some of his stronger covers.
Wasteland Companion is sort of split into two halves, its first being an active, diverse collection of songs and its second half being a quieter, more contemplative output. The splitting point is “The First Time I Ran Away,” a song that plays out much like his signature song “Chinese Translation” with its churning guitars and its cathartic, wordless chorus serving as sort of a drifter’s anthem, as well as one of Wasteland’s biggest highlights.
The best portion of Wasteland falls in its final four-song stretch, as these four good-natured ballads best display Ward’s effortless songwriting and intoxicating voice. “There’s A Key” gives the sensation of a good, long exhale after a long day’s work, as M. Ward sings about finding strength in the music he makes. “Crawl After You” is a gorgeously written and arranged piano ballad about love lost and found again. “Wild Goose” showcases M. Ward’s guitar play, as he still likes letting his play do most of the talking, singing wistfully with the rustling rhythm of the song. Finally, Ward wraps things up with “Pure Joy,” which exudes just that, in singing the truest of love songs filled with Gospel imagery.
While his music can sound world-weary and exhausted from life lived, M. Ward’s music is at its strongest when he finds light and gains wisdom through the darkness. Much of Wasteland Companion (especially its second half) is just that and stands as a testament to the power of a well-written song.