It’s hard to answer exactly how Matthew Ward, known by his exceptionally ordinary stage name M. Ward, has acquired an ever-growing fan base over the past 10-plus years. The easy answer would be to owe it all to Zooey Deschanel, his wide-eyed sidekick in the retro pop outfit She & Him. But compared to the adorkable vocalist, Ward is just the shy guy behind her, strumming melodies with the rest of the background group. Maybe it’s his resigned guest spots on Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket albums, which resulted in the 2009 supergroup Monsters of Folk. Even then, Ward was often in the shadows of his big-name buddies Conor Oberst and Jim James. Whatever the answer is, Ward’s seldom-noticed solo efforts, from 2003’s solemn Transfiguration of Vincent to 2009’s bubbly Hold Time speak for themselves. The meticulously crafted yet effortless guitar work on each of his solo outings, including the latest one, A Wasteland Companion, is so great that it makes us wonder why the hell he wastes so much time with his far inferior contemporaries. After dedicating some years to She & Him and Monsters of Folk, A Wasteland Companion finds Ward back in his element, even though he hasn’t really evolved musically.
If Hold Time found Ward in a particularly cheery mood with tunes so catchy they ended up in beer ads, A Wasteland Companion features Ward as the reluctant celebrity, taking the energy down a notch and shying away from attention. He’s far mellower than in previous solo jaunts as evidenced by opener “Clean Slate,” with that lush guitar melody we’ve come to know and love from Ward’s body of work. He practically whispers the words of the song as his falsetto echoes over hushed layers of strings. It’s almost as if Ward is ashamed of his exemplary talent; even the lead single “Primitive Girl,” a piano-driven retro pop ode, features despondent vocals and deceptively lacks the bounciness its opening notes promise, let alone Ward’s signature instrument. But the title track is perhaps most evocative of Ward’s glaring discomfort; his subdued vocals and isolated strumming over the sound effect of a bustling, impatient crowd let us envision the musician alone on an empty stage with nowhere to hide from the spectators’ eyes.
Ward doesn’t just shy away from the animated pop that pervades his past work, solo and otherwise, by stripping down his sound; on the contrary, he gets quite angry, both at himself and at the fans he has attracted in more recent years with his commercial success. Ward’s fury could not be more evident than on “Me and My Shadow,” a raging tell-off to his public persona that also happens to be the best track on the album. Ward’s voice has never been more commanding and he has never shredded his guitar more ferociously. Unfortunately, this new distortion that Ward explores on “Me and My Shadow” only appears briefly, but his guitar’s violent outburst is a hopeful move in a new direction for the indie folk veteran. On “Watch the Show,” Ward lashes out at the spectators for his appearances on late night TV; he sardonically demands their attention with an ominous growl, a clear indicator of Ward’s crippling uneasiness with himself and his own talent. But it’s not all gloom and doom on A Wasteland Companion; Deschanel makes a vivacious appearance on the jolly “Sweetheart,” and Ward expresses his secret admiration for his beloved on the rollicking swing tune “I Get Ideas.” The juxtaposition of Ward’s happy and pissed-off moods is questionable; while the different attitudes he evokes on the record result in individually decent songs, they don’t necessarily fit well together on the same album.
It’s difficult to say whether Ward’s attempt to detach himself from the sound that has catapulted him into the public eye makes A Wasteland Companion a better album than his previous ones; while the mood and arrangements are certainly different this time around, they’re not necessarily better and do not exhibit any real growth on Ward’s part. There is nothing bad to say about A Wasteland Companion, but there’s nothing that stands out, either. The album will neither earn Ward new fans nor shy away his longtime followers. A Wasteland Companion is, for lack of a more descriptive term, just another M. Ward album: the product of an immensely talented musician, thoroughly enjoyable throughout and without an ounce of pretention or gimmick.