Review of M. Ward’s A Wasteland Companion (and a few thoughts on fandom)


A Wasteland Companion

Release Date: April 10, 2012

I don’t know about everyone out there, but I have a short list of musical artists who, in my mind, can do no wrong. The overall quality of their work is never in doubt for me, but instead falls along a continuum of “good songs” to “incredibly transcendently amazing awesome songs.” This inability to truly pass judgment is, I think, an experience common to a lot of music fans. Our reactions to certain musicians’ work is just too personal, too emotional, for us to be objective. It’s the experience that leads people to say that music “sounds like how I feel” or that a writer “writes how I think.”

This is nonsense of course, especially the idea that a musician’s lyrics are written “how we think.” I’m sorely tempted to think this is true of the relationship between my psyche and the lyrics of Ben Folds. In truth, the situation is more complicated. Instead of “writing how I think,” his lyrics are more like what I wish my thoughts sounded like: funny, unexpected, self-deprecating and somehow simultaneously Broadway-classy and Vaudeville-crude. His music provides an ideal on which I can hang my own hopes and anxieties about myself, which is why it is so hard for me to criticize.

M. Ward is another one of these artists for me. I’ve been a fan for quite a while now, since 2003’s The Transfiguration of Vincent. Unlike the work of Mr. Folds, for me, M. Ward’s music sounds quite specifically like how I don’t think, how I never think, but somehow exactly like what I think I need to hear. His words sound like the comfort and advice of every caring adult who told me to calm down – to try to be patient and grateful – when I was a high-strung child. And the music sounds like the sixties and seventies folk my mother used to play through the distortion of cheap record players and a.m. radio. I can’t fight it. To me, it sounds how music is supposed to sound.

That is why forming an honest and coherent opinion of M. Ward’s new album, A Wasteland Companion, is so difficult for me. The truth is, I loved this album the second I heard it existed. That anticipatory affection gives the work certain advantages; I would never, ever admit the album was bad even if it had been an hour of Ward tuning his guitar. On the other hand, my expectations are next to impossible to live up to. I say next to impossible because M. Ward exceeded them entirely with 2009’s Hold Time, an album that gave me lots of what I already love about his music and threw in brand new references like the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys inspired production in his cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” a track which was produced by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, another artist about whom I harbor lots and lots of unreasonable opinions. I was wowed.

I am less wowed by A Wasteland Companion. It’s good. It’s very good. It just isn’t blowing my mind in the way that I, unfortunately and unfairly, completely expect it to. Taken as one work, it seems more like a guided tour of M. Ward’s style than a fully-realized album. The opening track, “Clean Slate,” is full of pretty guitar that is pretty in the way M. Ward’s guitar is pretty. “Sweetheart” sounds like a She & Him track on which Ward is singing lead. “Watch the Show,” which leaves Zooey Deschanel’s sunny influence far behind, still sounds like it would be more at home on one of his pre-Hold Time albums, Post-War perhaps.

None of this criticism matters, though. This album is great. All of my petty doubts about it stem from the fact that I want it to be not only as good as all his previous work, but somehow better. In my estimation, the only track that succeeds in meeting my unfair expectations –  by exceeding them – is “The First Time I Ran Away,” which is everything I want an M. Ward song to be: unfailingly beautiful, meditatively repetitive without being cutesy or boring, and melancholy without being hopeless. Fans of contemporary indie folk who have somehow managed to miss out on M. Ward should at least check out this track.

It sounds exactly how music should sound. But that’s just my opinion.

Review by Lara K

Listen to The Lines and the Leaves on Thursdays at 2pm

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