M. Ward is one of a few remaining artists whose music still sounds best on vinyl. The crackles and pops from a record on a turntable provide a fitting ambiance for the singer-songwriter’s timeless sound. A Wasteland Companion, Ward’s latest release, is no different. Incorporating elements of roots music, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production, and the songwriting influences of Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan and Daniel Johnston, the tunes on A Wasteland Companion sound almost anachronistic as lossless files on an MP3 player. But regardless of how one listens, the nostalgia-tinged music on the record will undoubtedly transport listeners to a simpler time in an idyllic past.
Bereft of his Monsters of Folk and She & Him bandmates—save for brief appearances by Mike Mogis (organ) and Zooey Deschanel (vocals)—Ward’s first solo album in three years is arguably his finest to date. Far more succinct than any of his previous records, the 12-song, 36-minute A Wasteland Companion portrays Ward assuming numerous identities. He’s a defeated man in search of redemption (“Clean Slate”), a lovelorn teen at a 1950s sock hop (“Sweetheart” and “I Get Ideas”) and a disgruntled television network employee (“Watch the Show”). Mostly, though, he’s an effectual storyteller; it’s easy to imagine Ward fireside, camp setup along the Rio Grande, an endless starry sky overhead, reclining against a large rock with an acoustic guitar dangling from his neck, weaving tales about running away with his girl (“The First Time I Ran Away”), spending time with his friends (“A Wasteland Companion”) and serenading his love (“There’s a Key”).
Ward scores the poignant vignettes on A Wasteland Companion with his distinct jangly and finger-picking guitar-playing. When the songs require more instrumentation than merely a single acoustic guitar, Ward is joined by a supremely talented cast of musicians—from Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley to Dr. Dog’s Tobey Leaman and Devotchka’s Tom Hagerman—who contribute stellar performances on percussion, bass, piano, steel pedal and strings. A horde of other musicians round out the troupe, but it is violinist Amanda Lawrence who shines brightest of them all, playing a captivating solo on the hauntingly beautiful “Crawl After You.”
Ward narrates his tales with his inimitable tenor—his soft and soulful voice sounding best when exposed, accompanied by as few instruments as possible. On the sparse “Clean Slate,” his wispy delivery perfectly encapsulates the vulnerability of the redemption-seeking character he’s portraying in the lyrics. The self-sung harmonies he includes on the track sound ethereal, as if spirits of his former self comprise the chorus. When he’s not harmonizing with himself, he’s anchored by singer Susan Sanchez, who provides glorious background vocals during the coda of the infectious “Primitive Girl,” and the aforementioned Deschanel, who accompanies Ward on the arresting “Me and My Shadow” and the Daniel Johnston-penned “Sweetheart.”
A Wasteland Companion is a brilliant record that combines various moods and music styles to create a completely fulfilling listening experience. But if songwriting is a cumulative process, and fans can expect this level of craftsmanship from the musician in all future releases, Ward’s best may be yet to come. For now, though, let’s enjoy this release, which may be best summed up by the title of the last track on the album: “Pure Joy.”