M. Ward’s latest endeavor, “A Wasteland Companion” (the follow-up to 2009’s “Hold Time”), is everything we’ve come to expect from him in recent years: rollicking acoustic guitars weaving in and out of each other with snappy pop melodies, all coming through M. Ward’s trademark airy, shadowy voice.
Aside from the lush folk melody of the opening “Clean Slate,” the first half of the album plays out like a dark underbelly of 1960s pop. On “Sweetheart,” with its “oohing and ahhing” and Zooey Deschanel backing vocals, we get the picture of vintage, golden oldie pop music. But tearing through the song is a muscle-bound, aggressive electric guitar, an undeniably modern element.
On the next track, “I Get Ideas,” a Louis Armstrong cover, we get another tightly crafted melody tied heavily to the musical past. We see Ward’s own melodies fitting in right alongside those sounds, and yet the busy drum work and distorted guitar solo, just as on “Sweetheart,” feel uniquely contemporary. It is anachronistic pop music.
There is a sense of hopeful and innocent love on these tracks, which fades as we enter the wasteland of “A Wasteland Companion” in the final collection of tracks.
On the piano ballad “Crawl After You,” Ward sings, “I’ve been shook so bad that I cannot stand to utilize my feet, so I gotta crawl after you.” And complementing the lonelier contemplations of the album’s second half, the music shifts more to country and folk sounds, as the acoustic guitar takes its place at center stage.
It’s a beautiful-sounding album, and if there’s anything to find at fault, it’s that nothing much feels at stake. M. Ward has created a stylish album, combining a variety of sounds, from country to blues to ’50s rock and roll. Yet there is nothing to set it apart from any other album dealing with the same issues of love, or to set it apart from Ward’s usual experimentation with vintage sounds. It’s a beautiful album, but it may be a little too comfortable.