At the risk of stating the obvious, reality has become unrecognizable. I spend the day recording video lectures, trying to imagine what my students would be asking if we were in the same room. Republican lawmakers, the same ones who spent decades sternly lectured us all about the dangers of government spending, are eagerly giving citizens free money. My wife and I leave our house once a day to find abandoned streets; for the entirety of the walk, I feel simultaneously exposed and guilty. Did I touch any surfaces? Did I really need fresh air?
There’s a global pandemic, our president’s a reality TV star, and everyone’s hoarding toilet paper. It’s like an unpublished sci-fi novel from the ’90s, a cynical, hamfisted satire of American commercialism and ego. Literary agents would’ve rejected it out of hand. “Coronavirus? Like the beer?”
Obviously, M. Ward didn’t write his latest album, Migration Stories, for this particular moment. Inspired by his grandfather’s entry into America from Mexico back in the 1920s, he began writing about a future where “movement is free again”, a utopian vision of an America that’s a far cry from the one under the Trump Administration. Like 2006’s Post-War, a record assembled during the darker days of Bush/Cheney, Ward attempted to confront a horror with a dream, a state that matches his hazy, reverb-soaked tendencies.
But artists can’t always control context. When I first received Migration Stories a few months ago, it sounded like an entirely different record. I thought it was admirable, but that it was a bit too rosy for a moral crisis. I thought it was a surprisingly earnest (and welcomed) departure Ward’s bizarre, mean-spirited self-released 2018 album, What a Wonderful Industry. I thought maybe I’d say something about how a mid-level indie act attempts to keep it interesting 20 years into a career. Those ideas feel irrelevant now, though, because the way that I finally heard this record was in the last three weeks, while quarantined in my home, trying to avoid checking the latest reports of local cases and worrying about my healthy but certainly not young parents.
Although Ward didn’t intend these songs for this pandemic, they’re still capable of acting as a balm. He’s called this “a sci-fi fast forward to a more silent night many generations from here”, and that’s all the more apt now. These are songs about cities and the warmth of the people who occupy them, about the necessity of human interaction. It’s strange to call a premise like that otherworldly, but when the real world feels like a dystopia, maybe something so optimistic is indeed science-fiction.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a perfect record. Musically, Ward’s mostly abandoned the Brill Building worship of recent years to great effect. On songs like “Migration of Souls” and “Stevens’ Snow Man”, he instead channels the haunting vocal presence of Townes Van Zandt or the Gothic finger-picking of John Fahey. But there are moments where it drags, and others where Ward sounds less like an expert songwriter than an expert curator, re-purposing Glenn Miller’s “Along the Santa Fe Trail” or reenacting Beach House’s plodding, synth-drenched balladry on “Real Silence”.
Still, the particulars don’t matter as much as the underlying tone. These past few weeks, I’d put the record on, and for around 40 minutes, I could tune everything else out. And, as the narrator in “Unreal City” does, I could picture a welcoming future, despite my reality suggesting its impossibility. “Anywhere the sun strikes the pavement / Anywhere there’s feet on the street / I feel the most in the moment,” Ward sings. “I found peace in the unreal city.”
Of course, I’ll wake up tomorrow to find that nothing’s changed. And it will be that way for weeks, months. Maybe longer. But someday in the future, it’ll change. In the meantime, I’ll find some comfort in these imagined futures. For now, that’ll have to be enough.