Music Review: M. Ward, ‘A Wasteland Companion’

When a friend initially pointed me to this album, posted in its entirety on NPR Music, I had no idea what to expect.  However, before even pressing play, I was operating under three powerful pretenses: 1. I trust this particular friend’s taste in music, so I’m fairly certain I’m going to enjoy this – whatever it is.  2. This friend specifically suggested I review this album for my website, and this friend KNOWS what my website is, so I can assume that, if they’ve listened to it, it must be at least somewhat related to the theme of my site.  3. The title is ‘A Wasteland Companion’, further reinforcing pretense #2.  Regarding the title, I was thinking it might refer to one of two things: the fact that the album itself is the wasteland companion, intended to be played by wanderers, scavengers, raiders, and other such wasteland riff raff, or that the album might be referring to a more traditional wasteland companion.

Charon - the greatest wasteland companion

Clean Slate – This song is peaceful… positive. I have absolutely no previous knowledge or exposure to M. Ward, but his voice is clean, pure and honest.  I hear the pick scraping twangy strings.  There is a slight echo.  This feels intimate.  The lyrics seems to suggest a loss, and a new awakening.

Primitive Girl – this is more upbeat, and describes a natural girl who the speaker clearly admires.  The piano is peppy and light.  I’m honestly not sure what any of this has to do with a wasteland.  I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.  Perhaps his wasteland is metaphorical and/or emotional.  The lyrics now reveal that this girl has dumped him.  Why the hell are you so upbeat about being dumped?

Me and My Shadow – The recording of this track is interesting.  It’s as if I’m listening to it play through the speakers of some distant car stereo, echoing off of sleeping concrete and down empty streets, calling me through the darkness like a candle in a window.  The acoustic guitar, in contrast, is walking right next to me, keeping me company.  The drums show up, and they’re anxious.  What’s up, drums?  What’s wrong?  Electric Guitar shows up – this guitar is sinister.  Drums take off!  Electric Guitar takes off after him!  Electric Guitar and Drums disappear into the darkness… and Acoustic Guitar and I are left to wonder what the fuck we just witnessed.

Sweetheart – This 50s-esque lovesong feels simultaneously classic and yet dark – a sock hop full of dancing zombies in letter jackets and poodle skirts.  I still have no idea what this album has to do with any wasteland, but Zooey Deschanel is here now, and I’m okay with that.

I Get Ideas – This track, like the rest of the album, is clearly a throwback – an homage to an earlier time and style.  Something about his vocals seems absent and relaxed… as if I’m watching him from a distance or listening to him from around a corner and through a door slightly ajar.  I like it.  The electric guitar and drums seem to have made up.  The drums sound like they’re on the other side of the wall, and the electric guitar is wrapped in tin foil and the amp is dusty and the cords need replaced.  The paint on the walls is flaking and the  lighting is bad.

The First Time I Ran Away – this song starts with warm, wet strings and an overall cozy instrumentation, but the vocals are still distant and dry.  Where is he?  I’m here with the instruments.  He must be calling over the walkie-talkie or playing through a radio on the AM band.  We’ve got tin foil and a wire hangar fastened to the antenna – it’ll have to work.

A Wasteland Companion – Finally!  The title track!  If ANY song has to do with the wasteland, this has got to be it, right?  Right off the bat, there’s a lonely acoustic being plucked and struck – a hollow, sorrowful sound.  Ward’s saran wrapped vocals come in, lower, slower, and slightly dirtier.  There’s a moment of quivering strings suddenly.  Anticipation that gives way to more warm string-plucking and the fading in of distant cheers… very distant, as if a distant memory, blending with the howling of an outside wind. It’s as if someone left an old TV on in another room and some flashback football game from the 70s is playing.  The lonely strings remind us of their presence, but only subtly.  A sad pipe organ… a dirge.

Watch The Show – we fade directly in.  This song is dark and galloping.  Ward is monotone and detached.  THIS sounds barren.  Ward is introducing a character with his words here, describing a character who has broken into the television broadcast to tell tales of, I expect, a sinister nature.  OH… he works there, as an editor.  He doesn’t sound too happy about it.  I can picture the drums frowning, wide-eyed, serious.  Every time I truly lose myself in Ward’s words, the greasy, tattooed electric guitar grabs my shoulder and reminds me not to get too comfortable here.  I don’t belong here.  When’s the last time they cleaned this floor?  It ends as suddenly as it began.

There’s a Key – juxtaposed with the last track, this one is again warm and safe.  Acoustic, my wasteland companion throughout this musical journey, is here again, and I feel safe with him.  Ward’s words are a poetry of sand – inorganic, but pleasant, yet difficult to grasp and squeeze in your hand.  It’s best to let the wind blow it about, and the waves carry it in and out.  Just watch and enjoy – don’t try to take any home with you.  I can picture him singing this, and every other song, with his eyes closed… supporting himself with one hand on the mic stand and the other in the pocket of his jeans.

Crawl After You – His voice is slightly closer now, and the piano is more complex and mature. There’s a droning note in the background I can’t identify.  Ah, it’s a violin… slow and wailing.  The room is beige, colored so by beige sunlight steaming in through opaque, dirty windows and dust hanging in the air, held aloft by Ward’s sustained notes.  There’s a flavor of Tom Waits here, for sure.  This is one of my favorite tracks thus far.

Wild Goose – there’s a distant fullness of sound in the background of the familiar acoustic guitar.  A steel guitar shows up to the party and really fills out the early instrumentation. Vocal harmonies reinforce the fullness of the track.  A rhythmic tap-tap-tap, and now the piano dancing with the steal guitar.  This track is so damn surreal, and positive – it feels like a dream.  It ended too soon.  I was really, really enjoying it.

Pure Joy – This still has hints of the previous track.  It’s definitely a close cousin.  He talking about seeing “her” again, and how happy he is now.  He spoke about how sad he once was.  I’m starting to see the underlying narrative here.  It all seems to revolve around this girl, his angel, his ‘wasteland companion’… the natural girl that once made him happy, then left him and left him in an emotional wasteland… now she’s back, and he’s overjoyed to see her again.  How appropriate.  She is, according to him, the oxygen filling up his lungs again.

In the end, I could look back and see the journey that we went on together.  I think I know now what Ward meant by “wasteland” and “companion”, and I think that I understand, in retrospect, the narrative thread.  Even if I have it completely wrong, and even if my stream-of-consciousness, imaginary stumbling waltz of a review missed the dartboard completely and broke the glass in the family portrait, I still very much enjoyed the trip… and in the end, isn’t that the point?

Yes, you should listen to this album, wastelanders.  In fact, listen to it with a companion.

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