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M. Ward’s seventh studio album is the first to actually feature his likeness on its cover: A Wasteland Companion pictures the indie-folk artist’s majestically silhouetted pompadour set against an image of the moon. The album, which was released on April 10 by Merge Records, was recorded in eight studios and six cities (From west to east: Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, Omaha, New York, and Bristol). Matthew Ward has achieved a sort of baby Jack White status with his various ongoing projects including Monsters of Folk and She & Him, but here he takes a break to do some solo strumming. Sure, everyone drools over She & Him, but there are times when the quirky, cutesy couple-ness gets stale. Zooey Deschanel puts a touch of She on her Him’s album with a few cameo backup vocal spots, which is just dandy, but maybe Ward is better off here by Himself.
Or, not exactly; There are plenty of other collaborators on the album, including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Devotchka’s Tom Hagerman, and Dr Dog’s Tobey Leaman. When Ward sings by his lonesome, his songs become more deliciously eerie, and even intriguingly mysterious.
As the album opens up, it’s evident this isn’t going to be a collection of bouncy feel-good tunes, even though there are a few in the album’s first half: “I Get Ideas”, originally a tango song which has since been covered by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy, is up-tempo and fun, and counts as one of the two covers on the album. The second cover, Daniel Johnston’s “Sweetheart” featuring Deschanel, is another of the more frolicking tracks, but it’s almost too sunny to mesh well with the record’s aura as a whole. A Wasteland Companion is primarily M. Ward being folky without being hokey, picking away at his guitar and sharing his poetic contemplations. “Clean Slate”, “The First Time I Ran Away”, and “Wild Goose” are all great examples of his slowed-down, thoughtful style. Ward’s vocals are chillingly muffled in “Me And My Shadow”, which sounds like a fuzzed-out soundtrack to a duel in the barren West; one side of Ward’s hypothetically schizophrenic personality versus the other.
While the title track is the blandest, most passable track of the set, the second half of the album is where some of the best tracks can be found. In “Watch The Show”, Ward slips into the persona of fictional Billy Arthur Rose, who has toiled away miserably in a television studio for far too long and speaks to his audience with an Oz-like sense of lurking. He sings, “But now I want you to give me back the years that I have wasted/ Staring at these television screens/ And now that I have your attention/ Let me show you what I mean”, his vocals seemingly evaporating on the last lyric.
The waltzy “Crawl After You” features pianos followed by poignant violins, and then at the very end, an electric guitar quasi-solo so brief and random you might miss it. His voice is smoky and the lyrics show off his tenderness; everything here adds up to create an incredibly pretty song, which also happens to be the longest of the album (if only by a second) at three minutes and forty-one seconds. While he may not be straying too far off his usual artistic path with this album, its darker side makes it altogether pleasant and chillingly attractive.