Storytellers are ancient and revered individuals since the early days of logical, linguistic humankind, passing on the tales of the elders and those before them, of gods and man and nature and everything in between, from morality tales to gargantuan legends of the creation of the known universe. Fast-forward to 2012 and we have authors, screenwriters, directors, critics, poets and, of course, musicians and songwriters. When an artist with a few stories to tell manages to put the appropriate (and well crafted) music behind their yarns, the fans will come flooding. The likes of Bon Iver, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash are perfect examples of such beings, able to mould their thoughts into beauteous and illuminating musical form.
M Ward is seemingly on a similar stage, clambering out of the trendy Portland scene over the last decade, releasing several acclaimed alt folk records, working with the likes of Cat Power and Bright Eyes and forming successful side projects such as She & Him and Monsters of Folk. However, with the release of his seventh solo studio album, A Wasteland Companion, it may be time to ask whether the man has any stories left worth telling?
Sadly, opening track 'Clean Slate' may well be the high point of the record, tiptoeing through a rich acoustic melody that allows Ward’s poised hushed vocal (very few men can compare to the indomitable folksy, muted Ward vocal chords) to shine, weaving through a lyrical embodiment of an mature character awaiting a fresh start, after the simultaneous confusion and excitement of youth. Then, everything seems to unravel far too easily. 'Primitive Girl' and 'Sweetheart' suffer from a rushed, twee tone that, pleasant choruses aside simply mystify. Especially within the same space of songs such as 'Me & My Shadow' and 'Watch The Show', which lean towards old-timey, radio-crackled, rootsy Americana.
After such a career, it’s difficult to not make friends in the industry and M Ward certainly has those. Appearing throughout the record are a host of musicians and singers, including Mike Mogis, Howe Gelb, Steve Shelley and Zooey Deschanel. Miss Manic Pixie Dream Girl, aka Deschanel, has apparently had far too much of an effect on our primary protagonist, with the aforementioned 'Sweetheart' sounding exactly like a She & Him B-Side, complete with ‘oohs’ and a sickly set of lyrics so saccharine and syrupy, I can feel my teeth preparing to leap from my mouth.
A gorgeously guttural final four tracks save the record from crashing and burning, with the titular track eking out over three minutes of true-blooded guitar plucking and a wonderfully vintage hum that culminates in a sumptuously serene guitar tune that recalls great, vast American plains. 'Crawl After You' echoes the mature, nostalgic ambience of the opening number, grumbling and mumbling "I’ve been shook so bad, that I cannot stand to utilise my feet," whilst majestic strings sweep in over a densely constructed instrumental tapestry. Closer, 'Pure Joy', is essential M Ward, stumbling through rocky mountains and grand tradition, telling of the bliss of surfacing out of the depths of depression.
A Wasteland Companion is certainly an Americana record, as true as M Ward is an Americana composer, mostly sparse, acoustic strings, tender touches of piano and hushed, nigh-throaty vocals. Yet, after a few listens, it doesn’t hold the same quiet command of 2001’s End of Amnesia or the aged, weary vibes of 2003’s Transistor Radio. And, most prominently, there’s no sense of cohesion that usually emanates from such a record. Twee folk mixes with burning, surging country before shimmering, wide-open Mid-Western guitar picking jumps in. It’s a hodge-podge of Americana that seems more Civil War than United We Stand.