M. Ward is an artist whose side projects and extra-curricular activities have always, many would say unfairly, eclipsed his own solo output. Living in Zooey Deschanel’s shadow as one half of She And Him cannot be easy, and playing with Conor Oberst as part of Monster Of Folk is probably an equally surreal experience. However M. Ward has released a series of very pretty and very underrated solo albums, the most popular being 2009’s Hold Time.
Ward’s new album A Wasteland Companion is less coherent and more varied than his previous efforts but contains some of the most beautiful moments of his back catalogue. His default setting is finger-picking, folky, rustic and old fashioned, and many of the songs on the album, including the opening track ‘Clean Slate’, stick pretty closely to this aesthetic. However, the most notable thing about A Wasteland Companion is it’s variety. Some would argue that the albums variety is it’s strength, and some would argue that a lack of focus and editing plagues it. It is difficult to say which of these is true, but after giving the album many listens, it appears to paradoxically be both.
Ward’s shifting styles certainly make the album an entertaining listen. He tries out Elvis Costello-esque power pop on ‘Primitive Girl’, and the Zooey Deschanel-featuring ‘Sweetheart’ is a driving, engaging foray into good old fashioned 50s and 60s pop. Sadly not all of the album is that engaging. ‘I Get Ideas’ is a driving, energetic love song, and while it’s muddy, scratchy guitar and sloppy drumming aim for some kind of punky version of the Beach Boys, it lacks the pure pop style of that band.
The title track, featuring some delicate finger picking, and washes of ambient drones, is certainly very beautiful, and the touching piano ballad ‘Crawl After You’ is genuinely touching. However for every moment of careful beauty there is one of sloppy experimentalism, and although it is always good for artists to stretch themselves and try out different styles, many of the experiments of A Wasteland Companion feel unfinished and rough. Ward’s slightly gravelly, idiosyncratic voice will definitely divide listeners, but no one could accuse it of lacking heart or style.
The final track, ‘Pure Joy’, perfectly showcases what M. Ward does best; lovely chord sequences, impressive guitar work, and an irresistibly hooky melody. However much of the album deviates from that sound in a way which is theoretically impressive, but doesn’t actually always engage with the listener. Ward’s music is intensely old fashioned, and those who are sick of the thumping electro-blandness of chart music, or the constant stream of impossibly hip synth-wielding bands, could do a lot worse than A Wasteland Companion, despite it’s shortcomings.
Released on 9th April 2012 by Bella Union