For those only familiar with Matthew Ward's work as the Him in Zooey Deschanel's pastiche to `60s pop and aw-shucks charm in She & Him, A Wasteland Companion opener "Clean Slate (For Alex & El Goodo)" is probably a bit of a curveball. Yet after years of working behind the curtain in both She & Him and with more outspoken rock revivalists Conor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis in the Monsters of Folk, this is the M. Ward longtime fans will be delighted to hear - Ward's husky, ashen voice ruminating over barely there acoustic strumming, losing itself in the simple campfire pleasures of storytelling and the barely there hiss of an AM radio. Ward's production talents really started to shine through with his last solo effort, 2009's Hold Time, and the aforementioned work with She & Him and his more esteemed partners in Monsters of Folk hit on familiar Ward touchstones: Brill Building pop, Chuck Berry homage, and dyed-in-the-wool `60s Americana. A Wasteland Companion, Ward's seventh album, continues to touch on all of these influences at one point or another. "Clean Slate" is where Ward's heart belongs though, resting in the shadowy period between the blues and British Invasion pop, a time when recording on more than one track was a studio trick in itself. The sparse tribute to Big Star is striking in its simplicity, and although A Wasteland Companion goes to great lengths to show Ward's dexterity as a producer, few artists can transport a listener as easily as Ward does on "Clean Slate" with just an acoustic and that inimitable voice.
The first half of A Wasteland Companion suffers from Ward's seeming desire to do everything at once - from the contemplative folk of "Clean Slate" he rushes into the heady "Primitive Folk," which, with its ivory pounding and lovelorn attitude, comes off as strangely tossed off, the kind of song Ward could write in his sleep. That near flawless acoustic interlude seguing into the foreboding "Me and My Shadow," however, is just the kind of sleight-of-hand musicianship that Ward can make seem effortless. While "Primitive Girl" and "Me and My Shadow" ostensibly seem quite different, in both tone and structure, they nevertheless hail from that same sepia-toned early `60s soundscape that Ward has been worshipping for years. Yet where the former arrives as a pale imitation of his best homages, "Me and My Shadow" is at times threatening and alive in a way "Primitive Girl" only hints at, something the sexy, ragged guitar mini-solo certainly contributes to. Yet from there Ward throws in the requisite Deschanel duet (Daniel Johnston cover "Sweetheart," which comes off as a wannabe She & Him B-side) and a strangely jaunty, incredibly out of place Louis Armstrong cover ("I Get Ideas").
So A Wasteland Companion, at least initially, seems determined to continue the ideal of Ward as a new classicist in American pop music, deconstructing the sounds of the past and re-imagining them in the present to create something fresh. This works well with the pointedly nostalgic She & Him and the one-off mission of Monsters of Folk, but in the context of Ward's own discography it's unnecessary, as the second half of the record proves. Ward is still the same classicist he's always been on a song like "The First Time I Ran Away," a student of Guthrie and Holly and well-traveled dirt roads, but "The First Time I Ran Away" feels indubitably organic whereas "Primitive Girl" sounds like a cover. That lovely strumming, the insistent bass drum beat echoing in the background, a touch of synths - it all accentuates an atmosphere Ward painstakingly crafts to sound like all his favorite old records, yet imbues with his own feeling and straightforward lyrical narratives. The twanginess of the title track increases in direct proportion to the distant background sounds of a crowd Ward interposes over the hum of strings, and it's nostalgic and affecting, but it touches something more primal and natural than the candy-coated pop hooks of the first half.
Ward's disparate influences will always have a huge pull on him, along with his continually growing production experience, but the beauty in his solo work has always been his take on this lesser known tangent of Americana. Not the pop foundations he mastered and made famous with She & Him, but the shuffling acoustic ramblings of "Wild Goose" and the gospel-tinged blues worship in "Pure Joy" - the frayed, graying tones of what people first loved about rock `n roll, not the rose-colored hues of She & Him but the grit of country blues and the haze of transistor static. A Wasteland Companion at first seems unsure of what it wants to be or where it wants to go, vacillating between various genre exercises rooted in a common retro theme, but by the end it reaffirms what those who've loved Ward's old work have always known - there's plenty of poignancy in just a guitar pick.