You may know M. Ward for his lithe, Grammy-nominated band She & Him, featuring Zooey Deschanel, or perhaps it’s from his indie side band, Monsters of Folk, in which Ward teams up with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (aka Yim Yames) and producer / musician Mike Mogis. Then there are others who follow M. Ward for, well, M. Ward. From Merge Records, Ward’s new solo album (and eighth studio recording), A Wasteland Companion, features 18 different musicians and, as a marked departure for Ward, was recorded in eight different studios throughout the United States. There are peaks of significance, and there are craggy expanses you wish you could bypass. There are even moments reminiscent of the glory days, when an M. Ward record was your soundtrack for a night of drinking Cabernet alone.

The first track on the album, “Clean Slate,” has a mellow, hollow sound—a rendition that harkens back to Post War (2006) and Transfiguration of Vincent (2003). Both this track and the title track carry that delta blues sound that echoes back to the style of Mississippi John Hurt. Perhaps “Clean Slate” is intended as a prologue to the rest of the tracks to come, or even Ward’s take on the album as a whole—a starting over.

However, the second track (and first single), “Primitive Girl,” plays in stark contrast to “Clean Slate” comprising an extremely poppy beat that lacks the lyrical melancholy Ward is often known for. Perhaps he’s just getting older, or maybe Ward has subconsciously adopted the airy sound of Deschanel (who lends her voice to two songs on the album, including “Me and My Shadow” and “Sweetheart”) into his personal sound. Regardless, it’s easy to take in and will surely appeal to a wide audience even though the lyrics fall flat: “She’s a primitive girl, she don’t like to boast, from her natural head to her natural toes.” These lines serve only the shallow purpose of accompanying the repetitive piano chords.

The two tracks featuring Deschanel’s harmonies, however, do encapsulate a few of the album’s finer moments. “Me and My Shadow” conjures up sounds of Post War and blends Ward’s old and new styles in a twangy, finger-picked backdrop. The track also solidifies itself as one of the better ones on the album when it introduces a distorted electric guitar towards the end and layers it with Ward singing, “You can keep this world; this world is not my home.”

“Sweetheart”—a Daniel Johnston cover, which along with “To Go Home” from Post War is one of the many notable Ward covers of Johnston—then departs from his normal brooding and plays around with a 50’s teen-pop vibe with doo-wop as inspiration. The overall effect is a song that is catchy and light-hearted (very Buddy Holly, Cadillacs and milkshakes) layered with the rougher acoustics of electric guitar riffs.

Some of the standout tracks on the album include “Watch The Show” and “Crawl After You.” “Watch The Show” is narrative in nature and injects a bit of the darker M. Ward into the whole mix. The sound of Ward’s vocals are a bit eerie in their echoing quality and the poetry in the lyrics a bit anti-hero in mentality. But these elements only heighten the notion of this track being the peak in the album’s arc. “Crawl After You” features beautiful instrumentation, opening with an ethereal piano melody and then flowing into beautiful, swooning strings towards the end.

Ward wraps up the record with “Pure Joy,” which reconfirms the notion that this album may serve as a necessary and welcome return for the singer/musician. As Ward sings, “Thought I was falling into a deep depression, thinking all the mystery was gone, but now I’m coming up for air.”

Another Wasteland Companion offers a sneak peak at all of Ward’s personas. But with a total run-time of only 36 minutes, it’s a quick listen and lacks something to be desired. For any diehard fans, certain tracks will whet the appetite with a bluesy guitar and bar-room rasp. The album recognizes Ward’s inspirations, and for those who may have been introduced to him through his side projects, Ward offers upbeat, summery folk-pop tunes as companions. In the end, Ward continues to prove himself a great musician who knows his way around an instrument and has apparently mastered the perfect combination of strings and vocals that will pull at you even when you try to fight it.

Release Date: April 10, 2012

Label: Merge Records

Stars: 3 out of 5

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