Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Ten ELEVEN Albums of 2012
Can't believe I left this one out!

M. Ward:
A Wasteland Companion
"Clean Slate"

One of the things I love about Matt Ward is his self-effacing modesty -- he's reduced his name to a bare intial, he avoids putting his own photo on his album covers, he doesn't even have a bio on his own website. He's so eager to collaborate with other artists like Jim James, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis (Monsters of Folk) and Zooey Deschanel (She & Him), he hasn't put out an album of his own since 2009's Hold Time. He may have come up through the hipster music scene of Portland OR, but there doesn't seem to be any Portlandia-style fatuousness about this guy.

M. Ward has slipped so gradually into my musical consciousness -- a track here, a track there -- that this is the first entire album of his I've bought, and I have to say, I adore it. Since it came out in April, I've been listening to it so regularly that it no longer seems to me like a new record. Why else would I have forgotten to put it on my 2012 top ten list?

I keep wanting to call this album Heartland Companion instead of Wasteland Companion, because there's something so agreeably handmade about it -- acoustic guitars, piano, whispery reverbed vocals -- Ward definitely comes from a retro, less-is-more school of production values. One of my favorite tracks on here is a sprightly cover of the old Peggy Lee classic "I Get Ideas," as well as Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart." But there's plenty of darkness as well, to live up to that wasteland in the title -- haunting minor-key tracks like "Me and My Shadow" and "Watch the Show," before he segues into the uplifting sweetness of "Crawl After You," "Wild Goose," and the aptly-titled "Pure Joy." 

The arc of the album is sketched out in this opening track, "Clean Slate."

Over the gentle chug of an acoustic strum, he muses philosophically:  "When I was a younger man I thought the / Pain of defeat would last forever." I have no idea how old M. Ward is, but I am sure he isn't as middle-aged as this suspender-snapping declaration suggests. The way he sees it, though, he's already moved further down the road: "But now I don't know what it would take / To make my heart back down." I love this note of resilience and optimism -- how refreshingly non-indie.

Don't be entirely deceived by the simple folk-ish arrangement -- the plaintive, lonesome quality of it should keep you on your guard. The lyrics aren't traditional rhyming stanzas but long overlapping lines of blank verse, and everything is vague and non-specific, as the second verse admits: "Somewhere in another place, who knows / Could be another lifetime / Everything we gave away returns / Like a scene from a fugitive dream." Whah?  He's still stumbling through things, still a little lost.

But still he plows forward. Notice how charmingly his voice squeaks on the higher notes as he stakes his faith on new beginnings: "Cause I only have to wait a little while / Before I get my clean slate." He's not there yet -- he's still waiting -- but dagnabbit, he knows it will come. And this album is his companion, his guide to help him find that new start.

Well, here we are on the brink of a new year, and I'm hankering myself for a clean slate. This song is like my new mantra, helping me to draw a deep breath and be patient. You only have to wait a little while....


Uncle E said...

I have been a fan since about 2006 or so, and the first album I bought, and devoured for MONTHS was the brilliant Post War, and it still remains my favorite. Chinese Translation from PW still is unmatched by Matt. From there, while waiting for a follow up, I bought Vincent, then Transistor, which are excellent, especially Vincent. I was a little underwhelmed by Hold Time, but it's grown on me. This one is pretty special as well, although not reaching the heights of Post War. You hit the nail on the head. Pick up PostWar, though, as soon as you can, Holly!

Holly A Hughes said...

Sold! And so begins another addiction...

NickS said...

Very nice.

I hadn't heard of him that's good. I can easily see how one could end up listening to that a lot. It's gentle and smart and it seems like you could wait a long time before feeling obligated to have a specific interpretation -- just enjoying the ways in which he can make something so minimalist still feel surprising.

wwolfe said...

So far, I only know his work from She & Him. I found myself enjoying their Christmas album quite a bit this year. Based on your recommendation here, I'll have investigate his solo work. (By the way, your review of Graham Parker's latest prompted me to give it as a Christmas present to a Parker-loving friend, who was very excited to see it in his stocking. Both he and, presumably, Graham thank you.)

NickS said...

Looking up the album I learned that song was dedicated to Alex Chilton and explained as follows:

"It’s inspired by my favorite Big Star song, which is the 'Ballad of El Goodo.' I feel like this song could be about this character that he created in that song."

That makes an interesting sort of sense.

Holly A Hughes said...

I like that. Anything connected to Alex Chilton is ok in my book.