You pretty much know what you are going to get with a new record from Matt Ward: subtle little songs, haltingly good guitar playing, short on ostentation and long on resonance, a one-of-a-kind voice cut from the ragman’s circles, whispering halfway to sorrow and then back again, stopping off for a bit of uncouth barroom mirth now and then. Simple songs, marked by an acute attention to detail, the mood of the man’s voice in a constant duet with the subtle textures of his guitar playing. In the space between the two, there is always room for new inflections of the M. Ward sound.
A Wasteland Companion picks up in the vicinity where Hold Time left off, moving slightly away from the overt old-timeyness that creeps through his earlier records, occasionally playing with denser, dreamier atmospherics, on, for instance, the delicately swooning “The First Time I Ran Away,” Ward relating an imagined childhood swept up in brittle whimsy that wanders toward Nick Drake territory. The fragility displayed echoes the slower but similarly sedative, “Hold Time,” a song that almost feels like a halfway point between “Post-War” and this record’s title track, which morphs from a slow guitar ballad, Ward’s ragtag precision in full effect, into a mellow interlude that’s evocative and alive like those that grace Mickey Newbury’s wonderful Frisco Mabel Joy.
As may be expected, Ward’s partner in She & Him, Zooey Deschanel, makes a few appearances, both in the barroom mirth portion of the program. Her role is minor on the storming, fuzzed-out romp, “Me and My Shadow,” more upfront on the asymmetrical duet, “Sweetheart,” a jaunty and slightly countrified little love tune. “Shadow,” on the other hand, is wired up with anxiety, which comes to a head on an inflammatory, if very short, solo. In the way he addresses some singer everybody knows, who at night turns into a mockingbird, and who is also his shadow – “Hey, Mockingbird, you ain’t no innovator” – it’s reminiscent of earlier strange meetings that play out in his songs, say, when a killer whale wised up to what needs to be done when a true love leaves (“Sad, Sad Song”), or an old, old man beneath a willow tree (“Chinese Translation”).
While the lead single may be an upfront pop song, strangely calling to mind Pulp (“Primitive Girl“), the heart of this record may well be in the four songs with which it closes, mildly ruminative, starstruck, skidding from misery to joy, four intimate snapshots, endearingly homely as his best songs often are. “There’s a Key” is a subtle little heartbreaker, while closer “Pure Joy” is just what is says on the label. “There ain’t no one going to turn me ’round,” sings Alex Chilton on “The Ballad of El Goodo,” and song and singer — referenced in A Wasteland Companion‘s opener, “Clean Slate (For Alex and El Goodo)” — seem apt inscriptions not only for side one, track one here, but Ward’s work as a whole, singular within familiar structures, songs collecting and reflecting each other with each new record, making clearer and more individual the particular, calmly tall-standing man of music he has become.
Mickey Newbury – Frisco Mabel Joy
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
John Fahey – The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
Stream: M. Ward – “Primitive Girl”