Album: M. Ward, "A Wasteland Companion" (Merge)
Matthew Ward followed roughly the same trail hacked through the jungle by Elliott Smith before him: go to Portland, meet people, play guitar. Two paths: one leads to stabbing oneself in the chest, the other to Zooey Deschanel.
But the dilemma implicit in Ward's journey has always seemed less concerned with self-negation than with the demands of encroaching pop stardom. Does it effectively alter the essence of a man when he becomes better known for cavorting with ingenues than for a career spent making tuneful, literate pop-folk? Is it fair that he's even asked to choose a path? Probably not, and most artists would shrug off the suggestion that one needs to pick one thing or another.
Yet on "A Wasteland Companion" it certainly feels like he's answering a question. Yes, M. Ward still makes difficult and beautiful music. It's not "Post War," which felt like he was a ghost locked up in the windowed room of (then) hypothetically post-Iraq America, tracing questions in the dust with his incorporeal fingertips, but it's illustrative work, one that puts Ward's varied and varying interests on flickering display.
He's like a kinetoscope here, the short films of his songs blasting double-time through the viewfinder. The set -- quick and to the point at just over 36 minutes -- dispenses with the traditional beard-stroking folk right off the bat, "Clean Slate" taking a pastoral view of the delights of starting over fresh. "Everything we gave away returns like a seed from a fugitive tree," he says, looking forward through the cab at the lights of cars coming down the turnpike.
"Primitive Girl" shifts immediately into pop gear -- it's not remarkably different from his work of late with She & Him, but the juxtaposition feels statement-ish. We can do this thing, we can do that thing. Sometimes we do both things at the same time. It's barely begun when it's over, then on into the somewhat Smith-like "Me and My Shadow," which chugs along like a rattling steam train, turning halfway through into a bona fide indie rocker. The harder edged sound unfolds like directions down a path it would be very interesting to see Ward visit further. The sound harkens back to the pre-alternative music world of '80s labels like SST, a world that Ward has always seemed to keep at least one toe in, at least conceptually: his musical vocabulary certainly speaks to at least the possibility of there being a Lawndale album in his record collection.
Deschanel guests on the frothy (how could it be anything else?) "Sweetheart," but the set grows more texturally dense as it approaches the halfway point. "The First Time I Ran Away" is an explicit examination of just that: fear and wonder and surprise, detailing a boy's journeys through life. It's a kind of thing that Ward is especially good at; he's like the Spielberg of indie folk. You will be amazed by the things that you see, he says. It's OK to wander. By "Watch the Show" he's down in a low groove (and it's dark and groovy in here), telling an apocalyptic shaggy dog story in the style of an old-time tent revival show. "This telecast is now under my control," he warbles, and you'll tend to believe him.
The album gracefully drops to the floor through its final numbers, pretty and appealing songs -- especially the gorgeous, ebullient "Wild Goose" -- that presage and announce the closing "Pure Joy," where Ward tries to lay it all on line but gets sidetracked by tall tales. "Thought I was falling into a deep depression, thinking all the mysteries was gone," he frets, but the next moment he's plunging into the Grand Canyon after falling off a mountain, and then he's back in the arms of his honey. Scene missing? Nope, he's just having a good time. As usual, Ward gets caught up in his own wordplay, and it's not a bad trap to get caught in.
If Ward views the future as his wasteland, at least he sees us as his companions for the trip there. We might not be going anywhere pleasant, but at least we'll be amused on the march. Or we could run into Zooey Deschanel on the way: there's always something behind Door Number Two when your name is M. Ward.