After some promising-to-very-good early albums, M. Ward refined and focused his approach on 2006’s magnificent Post-War, which brought together all the vintage sounds Ward had been dabbling in—from ragtime to surf—and unified them through his gossamer guitar and hobo rasp. Since then, though, Ward’s appeared to stall a little. His two collaborations with Zooey Deschanel as She & Him have both been substantial hits, and 2009’s Hold Time had its bright spots (as did Ward’s contributions to the tongue-in-cheek indie-rock supergroup Monsters Of Folk). But having built his way up steadily to Post-War, Ward was starting to seem a little confined by his style, or perhaps unsure how to move forward with it.
A Wasteland Companion doesn’t represent a major shift in sound, but Ward did record in a new way, working in different studios with different musicians while touring around the world. The result is an album that feels a little more off-the-cuff than anything Ward has done over the last five years. Even the album-opener “Clean Slate” has a demo-ish quality, matching its message about how hard it can be to start over. A Wasteland Companion trots out most of Ward’s old tricks: The suspended notes add a bit of tingle to “Me And My Shadow” and “There’s A Key”; the pounding piano brings sonic depth and variety to the rudimentary “Primitive Girl”; the girl-group clap-and-coo energizes the Deschanel duet “Sweetheart”; the sleepy Tom Waits-ian barroom balladry of “Crawl After You” comes off as both gruff and gorgeous; and so on. But the songs on A Wasteland Companion also sometimes devolve into artsy atmospherics or ornery fuzz, revealing a musician not necessarily beholden to structure. By and large, the pieces are what matter here, not the whole.
That’s not to say that the songwriting on A Wasteland Companion is slack. Ward has a knack for marrying memorable phrases to sticky melodies, as he does on songs like the delicate “The First Time I Ran Away” and the sweetly benedictory “Pure Joy.” But it’s the album’s smaller pleasures—like the watercolor blossoms of strings and synths on “Wild Goose”—that define what A Wasteland Companion is. This is the phase of his career that M. Ward has entered: Now that the thrill of discovery has passed, it’s all about comfortable familiarity, and the small changes that represent a measure of growth. In that context, Ward’s simple expressions of creativity and enjoyment are heartening, a reassurance that there’s always something new to anticipate and explore.