Although most people see M. Ward relegated to Zooey Deschanel’s backup in their band She & Him, he has been a pivotal figure in the Portland, Ore., music scene for years.
Some Deschanel fans might say Ward rode her to the top and she’s the only reason anybody knows the man with the abbreviated first name, but it’s safe to say Deschanel was the one who hopped on his musical coattails.
Or maybe not — Deschanel is the one who received songwriting credits on most of She & Him’s tunes. Regardless, Ward has established that he is capable of not only getting by on his own, but he can do it far better alone than he can with “The New Girl.”
Although his solo music is a completely separate entity from his work with Deschanel — since, as mentioned, he does little of the writing for She & Him — Ward at times borrows from the cheery yesteryear vibe of the old-fashioned Deschanel, primarily when he opts for more elaborate instrumentation.
Ward alternates between acoustic loveliness accompanied by sparse instrumentation and poppy full band tunes, both varieties sounding like they could have been written in any time since the ’50s. The songs would have been relevant in any era, giving them a timelessness that ultimately makes the album more accessible to all tastes.
Ward, while an adequate singer, never lets his pipes take a song over, but with the nature of his music, you don’t need a dominating vocalist — just one who can be both reserved and charming, allowing his voice to compliment the gorgeous melodies, not the other way around.
From the opening seconds of “Clean Slate,” two things are established right off the bat — Ward knows his way around an acoustic guitar and he knows exactly where his voice is supposed to be. He doesn’t oversing, instead letting gentle falsetto warble over acoustic arpeggios and melancholy slide guitar solos.
The first track is supposed to be an introduction to a record. It should embody everything the album is trying to be, but with a disc as two-sided as this, Ward takes the first couple of cuts to lay the foundation of “A Wasteland Companion.”
“Primitive Girl” is far jauntier than the previous track, with driving drums, a catchy piano line and a joyous vibe that stands in stark contrast to “Clean Slate.” Again, Ward makes it clear early on that he’s more than a one-trick pony.
The last minute or so of the song slows down to catch its breath before the transition into “Me and My Shadow,” which reveals an angry side we haven’t yet seen from Ward on this record. Drums and fuzzy guitars eventually enter the mix and almost make you forget the cutesy nature of Ward until you remember his delicate voice.
He clearly hasn’t severed ties with Deschanel, who sings a verse in “Sweetheart” and provides backing vocals here and there. The blue-eyed soul back-and-forth between Deschanel and Ward evokes much of the She & Him whimsy, like it’s just two star-crossed lovers singing to each other.
“A Wasteland Companion” hits its stride right around the middle, with “The First Time I Ran Away” beginning a run of four consecutive superb songs. It will be no surprise when this track is used in a car commercial designed to appeal to the buyer’s emotions and love of seeing the world, while the title track is like something a mainland version of the laissez-faire Jack Johnson would come up with.
“Watch The Show” falls somewhere between surf rock and the title track to a spaghetti western. The track seems to follow a disgruntled television studio employee, upset with all the time he has thrown away in the studio, time he could have spent on the screen instead of behind the scenes.
In a special-edition issue of Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums of all time, Elton John wrote that a good album is a short album. Listeners tend to get bored soon after the half-hour mark, so in the 36th minute of “A Wasteland Companion,” the final track, “Pure Joy,” sums up the listening experience of both the song and the entirety of Ward’s latest effort.