It’s been a while since singer-songwriter M. Ward had some alone time. His last solo effort, Hold Time, was back in 2009. Now, having devoted most of his time to side projects She & Him and Monsters of Folk, Ward returns with A Wasteland Companion, a pendulum that swings back and forth between seeking companionship and exploring what has yet to be discovered.
Where She & Him allows Ward to live in a romanticized, 1950s pop world, A Wasteland Companion seems to show the singer’s uncertainty about romance. It’s luscious, and the instrumental arrangements are atmospheric and beautiful, a soundtrack to Ward’s journey into the unfamiliar. The first half of the album finds Ward searching for love: “But now I don’t know what it would take to make my heart back down,” he sings on “Clean Slate.”
Ward’s disposition is weary and realistic — he understands that the road to romance is difficult, reflected in his melancholic delivery. It’s sad, but the listener can’t help but relate, embracing Ward’s sadness as their own as they reflect on their own tragic-stricken love journeys. Ward’s song writing is great because of this. You can sense the honesty and truth in his songs, compelling the listener to continue on, in hopes that Ward will soon find his lost love.
The beauty of this album and its songs lies in Ward’s beaten-down spirit. The album’s title track moves with a sluggish pace, each staccato foot stomp conveying the singer’s exhaustion and strain. The mood is lonely and miserable, and although Ward sings about his friends coming and going, the listener can’t help but feel that the singer is disconnected from everyone around him, the music his one and only friend. Ward withholds nothing, and this is why his songs work. He’s so vulnerable that listeners are inclined to listen to every word he has to say.
Ward’s weary realism comes off as sad most of the time, but he’s not looking for pity — just hoping to find someone who’ll listen to his story, and may even share similar experiences. “Crawl After You” embodies that: “Oh should I stay here on this bus-stop bench/So strange to see you after all these years.” That feeling of seeing someone you once cared about so deeply, in such an unexpected manner, is something all listeners will be able to relate to, which Ward uses to his advantage. He lays his heart on the table, in hopes that you’ll do that same, and take from the experience whatever you see fit.
Those hoping for a She & Him sound-alike will be disappointed. Ward’s voyages are not as clear-cut as those he makes with bandmate Zooey Deschanel. There’s a complexity in his delivery — he’s ambivalent and unsure, not leaning too close to optimism or pessimism, but staying right in the middle.
A Wasteland Companion bears the weight of many mistakes and life lived, resulting in an album that showcases Ward at his most real and unrestrained.