M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion

Written by April 3rd, 2012 at 10:01 am

M. Ward
A Wasteland Companion
(Merge)
Rating: ★★★☆☆

If only we lived in the glory days of vinyl records; for if we did, I might have placed M. Ward’s latest offering, A Wasteland Companion, on its B-side and started from there. In the seven tracks that would have comprised this nearly flawless record, Ward produces the kind of simple folk songs that thrive on his lush, impeccably landscaped arrangements. None of this is to say, of course, that the first half of the record is a barren musical wasteland. Quite the contrary. It serves as a playground in which Ward experiments – occasionally with collaborator Zooey Deschanel – with different kinds of sounds and genres. And like any experiment, sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t.

The record begins in familiar territory with the pensive and hopeful “Clean Slate,” an outlier on this record for its sparse arrangement. “I only have to wait a little while,” he sighs in the refrain, “before I get my clean slate.” In an understated way, Ward proclaims his glee for the new opportunities that this fresh project offers. Relaxed and subdued, his voice carries this song’s hauntingly beautiful melody further than many other singers could.

No sooner has he allowed us to relax, Ward takes off into the world of indie rock, a genre in which he is far less adept. He has some success with the catchy “Primitive Girl,” but his duets with Zooey Deschanel fall flat. The songs themselves are forgettable, and they tend to strand Deschanel, whose innocent and organic vocals serve primarily as backup. However, just at the point when Ward’s rock ventures grow tiresome – an uninventive cover of the 1950s Tony Martin hit, “I Get Ideas,” is the final straw – he takes the record for a dramatic turn and starts anew.

“The First Time I Ran Away”– a song that harks to the earliest works of Paul Simon – opens the second side of the record. “The first time I ran away,” Ward recalls, “I saw faces in the trees/I heard voices in the stars.” He seems so at ease in this ethereal landscape of sound and verse that it is a wonder why he ventures from it. Ward experiments more successfully with the title track, a kaleidoscope of melodies and effects that is bound together by a ghostly sonic wind. Here, Ward’s knack for presenting the dichotomy of peace and chaos – as well as his understanding of the space in which they can co-exist – is allowed to shine.

Ward saves his finest for last. In the closing tracks, “Wild Goose” and “Pure Joy,” Ward offers two songs that, paired in the warm key of D flat, showcase his skill for marrying pleasant melodies with brilliantly layered arrangements. “Wild Goose” opens with a gentle, finger-picked acoustic pattern; a perfect progression as is, but as the guitar’s sound pans across the stereo field, it is joined from underneath by a gently breathing string section, their sound echoing off of the soft reverberation of church bells in the distance. And this is but a false intro. Nearly forty seconds into the song, the arrangement picks up steam with the entrance of upright bass and pedal steel, all as the song modulates abruptly from D flat to A major, settling back to D flat for Ward’s entrance. “Pure Joy”– the second of these two masterpieces –follows a similar construct, but with an even simpler arrangement that highlights the pure beauty of the song itself.

The album as a whole is not perfect; Ward’s decision to follow his experimental ear results in a few excusable setbacks. But at its core, A Wasteland Companion shows yet again why Ward can be placed in the higher echelon of contemporary American songwriters. He is bold, creative, and has clearly not forgotten that behind every stellar production resides an equally stellar song.

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