If you’re reading this review and you’re not familiar with M. Ward — the odds of that being the case are low, I imagine, but still — chances are you’ve come across him in one form or another and not known it. Despite a lengthy solo career, M. (short for Matthew) Ward has become something of an indie-circle household name in the last four years, thanks to his involvement in two high-profile collaborative projects: She & Him and Monsters of Folk.
Ward’s work with quirkster Zooey Deschanel and the likes of Jim James, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis, respectively, casts him decidedly as a supporting player. After all, on the three She & Him records, Deschanel gets frontwoman duties nine times out of ten, and it’s never easy to steal the spotlight in a supergroup. A Wasteland Companion puts a solo Ward front-and-center again for the first time since 2009’s Hold Time, and there’s no sense that he’s either rebelling against or too egregiously lifting the aesthetic of either of his side projects. His songs strike an unlikely balance between youthful romanticism and wise-beyond-his-years contentment.
The album’s throughline has a lot to do with finding some kind of redemption, even if you may not be looking for it; it’s not a surprise, with bookends titled “Clean Slate” and “Pure Joy”. Both prominently feature Ward’s excellent, evocative acoustic guitar picking, a consistent highlight of his work here. But interspersed among these songs is a different side of Ward, one fascinated by old-school rock ‘n’ roll, girl-group pop and light blues. Case in point, “Clean Slate”, an alt-country gem that evokes Big Star in more ways than its subtitle (“For Alex and El Goodo”), is followed by the bouncy, “Chopsticks”-ish “Primitive Girl”, which seems closely related to Ward’s contributions to She & Him. It’s interesting to hear how the two sides of Ward — that is, the folky, introspective side and the poppy, flirtatious side — interface, and it’s to his credit that he finds room for both versions of himself on the album without letting either feel forced.
It’s also impressive that Folky Singer-Songwriter M. Ward and Ballsy Blues-Rock-Pop M. Ward spend the album sparring for best song. “Clean Slate” is a strong opening statement for Folky M. Ward, but that’s answered and one-upped by Ballsy M. Ward’s “I Get Ideas”, an loose rockabilly jam with a killer chord progression. But then there’s “The First Time I Ran Away”, a lush, adventurous acoustic showcase that lands somewhere between the revered Big Star and America’s “Ventura Highway”. But that’s not to say that Ward spends the whole album careening between two disparate musical styles. “Crawl After You”, with lyrics like “I cannot be depended on to lie here / And casually watch as you go waltzin’ by”, exudes the heartfelt regret of his plainer folk ballads amid swirling strings, a simple piano line, and distorted guitars.
Throughout, Ward’s smoky, beguiling voice and ebb-and-flow guitar lines create the sense that every song has a secret to guard, and that it’s up to the listener to uncover it. There are times you might wish he was willing to be a bit more flashy; everything here remains chilled-out and understated, with only a few bursts of quiet intensity to change the pace. Still, other than the dreary Johnny Cash impersonation of “Watch the Show”, there’s nothing here that doesn’t work, even if the proceedings drag here and there. There’s also nothing here that deviates drastically from the M. Ward formula, but after three years spending most of his time sharing the spotlight with other indie heavy hitters, who says that’s a bad thing?