By Gareth O’Malley
Matthew Stephen Ward’s been around a bit since he released his last solo album, Hold Time, in 2009. In that same year, he put out an album with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes under the Monsters of Folk banner. The following year, in addition to releasing Volume Two, the second of his albums with Zooey Deschanel, he was also involved with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol’s most recent side-project, Tired Pony, who released The Place We Ran From. Last year, he and Deschanel put out a Christmas album, and he put the finishing touches to this, his seventh solo album, A Wasteland Companion. If the concept of a year off has ever looked completely foreign to anyone, it’s this man.
Then again, the main reason that M. Ward doesn’t do years off is probably because, on the evidence of his sixth album of any sort in four years, he doesn’t need breaks. When he does take one next, it will probably only be out of necessity. You would think he’d blown his creative load at this point, but A Wasteland Companion still finds him in fine form. It’s diverse enough to provide something for everyone. There’s some summery, playful indie-pop on the album, giving the lie to its contemplative title; it should come as no surprise to learn that “Sweetheart” is another collaboration with Deschanel, and the upbeat, piano-led “I Get Ideas” is an absolute gem, as is “Primitive Girl”, which is cut from similar cloth.
Away from material like this, however, lies the album’s real strength: it’s immediate enough to keep most people happy, yet behind its accessibility lies some real depth. Ward’s fantastic vocal delivery on “Me and My Shadow” lends the song a sense of urgency, but its biting lyrics (‘You can keep this world, this world is not my home’) hint that Ward has more on his mind than he originally hinted at. Likewise, the atmospheric “The First Time I Ran Away” is superbly complemented by the more mid-tempo title track, which immediately follows it, provides rich and elegant melodies, the sort that mark it out as one of the album’s highlights.
Ward’s had an extremely active last few years, but consistency has never really been an issue for him. He doesn’t seem to be displaying even the slightest signs of creative fatigue, and if anything, A Wasteland Companion seems to get better as it goes on and the pair of closing tracks, “Wild Goose” and “Pure Joy”, are some of the best songs he’s written in years. He deserves to be known as far more than just the ‘Him’ in She & Him, but even if that excursion has stolen his solo work’s thunder, his latest effort is intent on stealing it back, and it might just do that.
M. Ward (Facebook)
Reviewed by b3