M. Ward Sleepwalks Through Latest Release

M. Ward -- A Wasteland Companion -- Merge -- 2 STARS

COURTESY MERGE

M. Ward sounds very drowsy on his latest release, “A Wasteland Companion.” His words are murmured and slurred together, and he frequently misses the exact pitch or beat it seems he is supposed to land on. This vocal laziness, along with tired lyrics and minimal production, gives the impression that Ward did not work very hard on the album. Maybe he deserves a rest—he’s been exceedingly busy recently, as “A Wasteland Companion” will be his seventh release in the past four years in a tally that includes albums from side projects She & Him and the Monsters of Folk. But no matter the cause, “A Wasteland Companion” is a listless effort that is more likely to put listeners to sleep than become a sleeper hit.

Ward has been writing sleepy, contemplative pop since the early 2000s. His career got a jolt when he teamed up with actress Zooey Deschanel to form the duo She & Him, which garnered much critical and commercial success. On “A Wasteland Companion,” Ward shows that he sorely needs Deschanel’s charm and charisma to complement his delicate somberness. Deschanel shows up to inject a bit of life into the fourth track, “Sweetheart,” but her appearance only serves to highlight Ward’s faults. Deschanel’s voice is relaxed and bright, layered in waves of soaring harmony. Ward, in contrast, shows strain at the top of the register, and he muffs his notes at the bottom when singing “I love you.” It doesn’t help that Ward sings his verse three times, all with the same inane lyrics: “You have a sweet heart, sweetheart, you have a nice smile, baby / You drove me crazy / Down lover’s lane.”

The lyrics are a continuing problem throughout. Given that many prominent singer-songwriters, like Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields or Andrew Bird, rely heavily on wit or poetic insight, it is shocking to hear how amateur Ward’s lyrics are. “If you say, ‘how’re you doing?’ / She’ll say, ‘I’m doing well,’” Ward sings when trying to provide evidence about why his girl is primitive on “Primitive Girl.” On “Clean Slate,” Ward indulges in vague, idealistic optimism: “You only have to wait a little while / Before you find the truth.”

Ward’s shoddy lyricism isn’t helped by his thin instrumentation. The stripped-down piano and guitar accompaniments force Ward’s pedestrian vocals and lyrics into the spotlight with no place to hide. “There’s a Key” features Ward finger picking on three simple chords for three minutes while he spouts poetic gibberish about the ocean. His soft acoustic guitar wanderings toward the end of the song sound aimless rather than essential to the song’s development. This lack of movement, combined with the sluggish and forgettable melody, make “There’s a Key” the worst in whole run of quiet and emotionless guitar songs at the back end of the album.

Ward has always been characterized by a sense of aloofness; in fact, he has intrigued many listeners with his disengaged persona. On “A Wasteland Companion,” this exaggerated cool falls flat. Ward’s emotional palette comes across as, in his own words, a “clean slate.” “Watch the Show” tells the tale of a disillusioned, neglected member of modern society plotting revenge on his oppressors. But nothing about the song, from the plodding guitar fuzz to Ward’s quiet murmurs, shows any trace of passion or danger. And on “Pure Joy,” Ward doesn’t come close to exhibiting the sentiment of the song’s title.

The best song on the album, “Wild Goose,” shows the intricacy that Ward is capable of. His gorgeous, varied guitar picking is supported by strings and echoing piano melodies. Over the top, a chorus of M. Wards sing in whispery harmony. The guitar lines, harmonizations, and finely tuned production of “Wild Goose” surely required much effort by Ward and his producers, and it is a shame that the rest of the album wasn’t cared for so attentively. But if Ward did run out of creative juice while recording this album, it’s understandable. M. Ward sounds tired, and for the sake of everyone, let’s hope that he gets some golden slumber as soon as possible.

—Staff writer Andrew Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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