Paling in Comparison to the Glowing Past
M. Ward's best albums —2003's The Transfiguration of Vincent and 2005's Transistor Radio— create spaces both sonically singular and somehow sacrosanct. With his love of analog tape and the warm, fuzzy, soft-edged sound of old AM radio, Ward is drawn towards vintage tone; and, in turn, that sound has, when amplifying his thematic briefs, unfolded into whole sound-worlds. Vincent was a suite of blues devotionals mourning a fallen friend' Transistor Radio was a paean to discovering music —and his own identity— via the crackling signal of the wireless. Both were steeped in memory, loss, and time passing, and sounded like albums wonderfully whole.
A Wasteland Companion is not the kind of record, and, in turn, isn't one of Ward's best albums. His first LP in three years —the latest ladled onto a ludicrously-full plate that now includes She and Him and Monsters of Folk— is not an artwork of sustained mood, nor theme threaded throughout. Instead, it's a collection of songs that may or may not actually sit together sitting together.
Here, Ward slips from barely-there moments of hushed murmuring and nimble fingerpicking, to the kind of brazen jukebox-pantomiming that characterized the so-so second She and Him record (and on "Sweetheart," invites Zooey Deschanel to sing lead, effectively erasing the distinction between band and solo), to swaggering blues songs with smarmy beat-poetic lyrics.
A Faint Praised Companion
Yet, for all its unevenness, and as much as it suffers in comparison to past works, A Wasteland Companion is hardly an album without pleasures. Chief amongst those are the album's bookends: "Clean Slate" finds Ward singing high and sweet, retelling "a scene from a fugitive dream" over gentle thrums and swipes of slide guitar; "Pure Joy" closing the LP with a gentle, shuffling song about arising out of the throes of depression as if wading out of the ocean.
"Crawl After You" etches pained emotions into friction-filled violin scrape, odd guitar harmonics, and woody, near-out-of-tune piano; which provide a sad bed for one of Ward's more effective, growling laments. And, where many of its more upbeat moments feel flat and, at times, even phony, "I Get Ideas" is a righteous saloon-bar stomp; getting down to rock'n'roll's basic birds/bees with fireball piano, a tinfoil guitar solo, gloriously-loud drums, and sentiments heaving with sweet sexuality.
There's no great revelations to be had with the album when it's at either its best or its worst, but Ward is too gifted a songsmith —and, moreso, a producer in vintage-kit— to make anything approximating a misfire. A Wasteland Companion's fate will likely be being damned with faint praise: this a solid, worthwhile album from a known indie commodity.
Record Label: Merge
Release Date: April 10, 2012