M. Ward has been making it big. Between those overly cute She & Him albums (which, don’t get me wrong, have their own candlelit glow at times) and being one-fourth of that absurdly-named-but-brings-the-goods Monsters of Folk outfit, Ward’s stock has never been higher. It blew up like a tech startup back in 2003 with Transfiguration of Vincent – still his best – and hasn’t dipped since. Hold Time, while perhaps too enamored of silky production spaces for Ward’s sandpaper-covered-with-honey voice and raspy guitar, still had that proprietary M. Ward spark, a willingness to grapple with God, fable and the history of American pop music.
His latest, A Wasteland Companion, is his first work under his own name in a little over three years. It was pieced together in various studios across the U.S. and in England, and a varied, disparate roster of musicians and producers chipped in wherever Ward touched down. All that globetrotting, and such an inconstant supporting cast, makes for a decidedly unsettled, uprooted album from a musician from whom we’ve come to expect a certain degree of consistency, or at least, thematic unity. It’s still Matt Ward up there, crooning away like an old hound dog, trusty busted acoustic still slung over his shoulder. What’s missing, though, is the familiar sense of deft control over the album’s arc, the lyrical intrigues, and the instrumental detail that make his other work so indispensible to the indie folk canon of last decade.
Structurally, the album is split by an uncomfortable caesura: after slow ballad “Clean Slate,” it’s four upbeat, gingerbread house pop tunes in a row, then, the sudden quiet and shuffling guitar of “The First Time I Ran Away,” a shy sleeper of a song underpinned by a distant bass drum beat and reverbed synth. It’s the first point in the album when the old M. Ward shows up – you know, the one who takes inspiration from his 45s but has his own story to tell. With the exception of “Watch the Show” (which begins auspiciously but gets bogged down by forced, easy rhymes and the lack of a story – who cares if this guy shows up on your TV and starts complaining?), the second half of the album is far more intriguing than the first. Maybe Ward just couldn’t resist the call of covers like Daniel Johnston’s “Sweetheart” or Louis Armstrong’s “I Get Ideas,” or the insistent, hollow pop of “Primitive Girl,” and had to get them all out the way before the real work could begin.
And when Ward finally gets warmed up, he practically smolders. “The First Time I Ran Away” recalls the three-part, fable quality of old gems like “Chinese Translation.” The title track twangs so hard its strings might break, and Ward’s guitar finally finds its old “Duet for Guitars #3” voice. “There’s a Key” reminds us that Ward’s lyrics can say effortlessly what we often can’t find words for: “I’m stuck between what we have done and what we are gonna do.” The final two tracks have more pathos than the first five combined if only because they let Ward’s voice and his scratchy pick do the talking.
But even these tracks lack the lyrical conviction of older songs like “Shangri-La” or “Undertaker.” Ultimately, if you love M. Ward as much for his unabashed, nerdy love of the oldies as much as his own prowess (and we all love him for that at least in part), you’ll find plenty to gush about here. But A Wasteland Companion is also his least gathered, most frayed record to date. What we’re getting here is a bit like the album’s cover image, which shows a silhouette of Ward’s outline against the moon: It’s unmistakably him, but all we see is his shadow.