M. Ward’s smoky-voiced balladry has always lain on the fringe of the indie folk scene; in a way, this suits the man’s reclusive sound. Steeped in mythic acoustic tales akin to the Old West, it’s more surprising to see M. Ward as the “Him” half of She & Him than to find him next to a bonfire in the desert, where his music seems to belong. “A Wasteland Companion,” his latest foray into solo work (apart from Zooey Deschanel and his supergroup, Monsters of Folk), is ergo an anomaly due to its fractured sense of identity. Despite having the M. Wardian name of any of the man’s solo material, the album sadly falls short of truly representing the M. Ward we’ve come to appreciate.
Reasons for this judgment are apparent throughout the album, but none are more glaringly klutzy than the tracks “I Get Ideas” and “Sweetheart.” The former, a Louis Armstrong cover, romps through jangling piano, clawing at Armstrong’s lyrics and unsuccessfully porting the original ballad for a faster swing. The latter, a Daniel Johnston cover, features Deschanel –– an influence that, while acceptable in the setting of She & Him, muddles the message of M. Ward. “Me and My Shadow,” the second track on the album, also features Deschanel, but to a much more acceptable level; this is still, at its heart, a track by M. Ward.
Deschanel’s involvement wouldn’t be a problem, really, if I wanted to listen to She & Him. But I sat down to listen to M. Ward. The same peril befalls “I Get Ideas,” because even though Deschanel isn’t present on this track, she might as well be. The cover is woefully cloying, an overly sweetened, overly stylized misstep on M. Ward’s behalf. It’s tough to throw out these words in a context of what are basically She & Him songs, because that’s why we love the duo in the first place –– it’s bubbly pop music, elating with sweet, carbonated riffs. Next to the other songs on the album, tracks with which M. Ward dives deeply into a pool of emotional reflection, staring out into the desert sky’s star-speckled expanse.
Compare these offenders to the intensely metaphoric tale spun into “Watch the Show,” a dialogue told from the perspective of a television show editor, Billy R. Boroughs, this track takes a dark jab at how sitcom somnambulism is corroding media’s role in society. The album’s eponymous track serves as a precursor to “Watch the Show.” Here, as a slight background buzz is the only context to the punctuation of M. Ward’s vocals and acoustic guitar, is where the album’s heart should truly lie. And it does, to an extent, except all of the tracks you have to blast through to get to it.
“Wild Goose,” a ballad about a girl who seems to eternally float out of grasp, embodies what has always been my favorite part of M. Ward’s music –– guitar shuffling back and forth like the wheels of a distant locomotive, M. Ward’s smokestack voice mewling its message to inhabitants of the tumbleweed wilderness.
Though we do get some sense of what we love about M. Ward in “A Wasteland Companion,” there’s too many frills on the edge to truly consider this a success of the man’s solo career. M. Ward has always been an honest alternative to pop music sentimentalities, which make it all the more depressing that he thought it necessary to include Deschanel and any element of syrupy, pastel songwriting. Without some of the more saccharinely trite covers, this album could have succeeded much more –– as it is, however, “A Wasteland Companion” stands as a heartbreaking realization that the open road — those expanses of land outside a metropolitan façade — are ceasing to exist. And with them, it appears that M. Ward has given up his fire.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5