Merge Records’ illustrious golden child, M. Ward, has returned to the solo ranks with his eighth studio release, A Wasteland Companion. If you follow Ward, either on Facebook or Twitter or via reposted news from She & Him partner, Zooey Deschanel, you may have gotten in on the chance to hear the album in its entirety through his SoundCloud page for three weeks in advance of the album release this week.
A Wasteland Companion offers a little bit of something for everyone. There are cover songs, there are songs with Ward’s trademark country-folk style, there are more poppy tracks to tap a toe to, and there are ballads reminiscent of the standards. Ward’s songwriting process has been referred to as a kind of history lesson, as he looks into the influences of his influences, drawing for this album from the sounds of Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and The Beatles, to name just a few.
The album opens with a track called “Clean Slate,” which seems to be an analogy for the way Ward approached the making of the album. The dedication of the song to the memory of Alex Chilton begs the question of whether or not the song is about him. According to an interview Ward did with the New York Times (April 1, 2012), it is more likely about El Goodo, the subject of one of Chilton’s Big Star tracks, “The Ballad of El Goodo.”
“Primitive Girl” makes a complete 180 degree turn from “Clean Slate.” The second track on the album offers a celebration to the early works of The Beatles and, as Ward is prone to looking to the inspirations of his influences, also to Buddy Holly. It joins a long line of predecessors telling the story of a girl with whom the narrator has become enraptured by and by whom he has been irreversibly changed. It is a story which is perhaps so readily told in song because it is one we all long to live.
Fans of the She & Him duo will be pleased to hear that Him didn‘t completely abandon his She as Deschanel contributes her antique alto to the cover version of Daniel Johnston’s “Sweetheart.” The arrangement Ward put together for this track is quite a step away from the lo-fi, almost “hippie rock” feel of the original, if just in the cleaner production quality alone. It is laden with the “old country” sound that rings out through both Ward’s previous attempts and through many of the tracks he has written with Deschanel, so it was a good choice to include her in this effort.
Ward’s cover of Louis Armstrong’s “I Get Ideas” is the most perplexing track of the album. In one listen, I love the tune and want to start it over to listen again from the beginning. In another, however, I hear moments where it seems Ward is attempting to channel Armstrong, emulating the latter’s legendary and unmistakable vocal qualities and I find this distracting. But then I play it again and am, again, in love with the track.
The album’s current single, “The First Time I Ran Away,” boasts a beautifully mournful, animated video directed by Joel Trussell. The melody is soft, ethereal, and almost melancholic—it reminds me in some ways of a handful of tracks from Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie… release. Meanwhile, the story in the lyrics tells a whimsical fantasy tale of warriors on a train and voices in the stars. It comes together at the end with a declaration that the next time the narrator runs away, he wants it to be with the “you” to whom the song is written.
Track 10 of A Wasteland Companion, “Crawl After You,” takes Ward out from behind his guitar and puts him before a piano for another classic sound that could have been written in any other decade and succeeded in all of them. Enter Amanda Lawrence and DeVotchka’s Tom Hagerman on strings halfway through and that classicality is solidified tenfold.
The album is brief, with 12 tracks in 36 minutes of total play time due in part to the brevity of the tracks which average two and a half minutes long; only a third of the tracks stretch past the three-minute mark. Brevity is often seen as a refined skill, one that often has very clear-cut results. Either the attempt succeeds in very dramatic ways or it falls short, leaving the audience unsatisfied and seeking resolution. M. Ward’s short tracks have landed in the former group, each tiny track wrought with so much imagination and musicality that they don’t feel at all truncated.
A Wasteland Companion will be available in mp3, CD, and vinyl formats from most major retailers April 10, 2012.