Thanks to a policy of recording as and whenever possible whilst touring, M Ward’s first solo record in three years, A Wasteland Companion, struggles from a bit of multiple personality disorder. Fortunately, all the personalities are lovely guys.
As the album leaps from opening track Clean Slate into the upbeat Primitive Girl, reminiscent of the M. Ward of old and much like Duet For Guitars #2, we get our first indication of this ‘record when I can’ attitude (with Ward borrowing the talents of his many musical friends as and when he needs them). There’s no real continuity between these two songs and it’s a bit jarring to go from one to the other. That being said, Primitive Girl is a bouncy number that moves along swiftly and tunefully.
There are many different sounds on the record, from the playful Primitive Girl to the sombre Me And My Shadow. The latter quickly gathering pace as Ward sings pointedly about, presumably, what life is like as a professional musician. Again, there’s an air of wise, ‘been there, done that’ worldliness about this track – a bit of a reoccurring theme throughout the album. Sweetheart benefits from a cameo from the ever loveable Zooey Deschanel but again, the sudden jump from the dark Me And My Shadow to this jumpy, light-hearted love song highlights the album’s discontinuity. Not that all albums need to have a theme, far from it, but at first the order in which this one has been put together seems very odd. After this, we start to get some cohesion for the first time, with I Get Ideas – a cover of a 50’s pop song made famous by Louis Armstrong and the closest to a danceable tune that Ward has probably ever recorded. The song is ostensibly about sexual inhibitions, not surprising given Deschanel’s brief appearance.
First Time I Ran Away is, simply, the best track on the album. Combining everything that Ward is good at- a catchy melody, meaningful lyrics and that haunting, reverb-fuelled voice, all coming together in just the right proportions. It’s little wonder this was chosen as the first single.
And, after the first few tracks, and arguably once you invest in it a little more, A Wasteland Companion does begin to flow a lot better. After all the commotion of several songs with a full band (culminating in the shuffling Watch The Show), songs like There’s A Key and Crawl After You make a nice break with soothing rhythms and a general calming effect. Taken individually, these tracks are all very good, however as an album, there’s still a disjointedness that, especially on the first couple of listens, is continually frustrating. I’m tempted to call it a mid-life crisis of an album, jumping all over the place trying desperately to fit everything in before it’s too late, but that would be unfair. It’s not wearing cowboy boots and buying sports cars, it’s actually a very good, mature album. And furthermore, this apparently, was Ward’s intention. The album is supposed to form a ‘travelogue’ of his many trips around the world on various tours, reflecting life outside the tour bus window, and culminating in A Wasteland Companion.
To be fair, Ward has never been about showiness; more about accessible songs that feel like they have something to teach you – that wise, cultured worldliness is something that is definitely evident through his lyrics on the record, especially on tracks such as Wild Goose and Pure Joy. Maybe A Wasteland Companion has skipped middle age and gone straight to its pensioner years – it certainly may seem like a rambling old fool at first, but eventually it’ll settle down and tell you wondrous tales of its travels.