Can't believe I left this one out!
A Wasteland Companion
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....