In a recent interview with About.com, M. Ward expressed the need for art that somehow incorporates opposites: “I’m of the opinion that all good pieces of art … have some sort of interesting contrast between dark and light.” This philosophy is well-executed in A Wasteland Companion, as M. Ward mixes his characteristic sensitive tones with more energetic blues. He departs from his comfort zone by engaging the two polarities but still maintains the comfortable sound that his voice and acoustic guitar are known to produce.

M. Ward

A Wasteland Companion
Merge


In addition to an active solo career, M. Ward is part of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel, and a super-group —consisting of Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket — called Monsters of Folk. He has also teamed up with singers Beth Orton, Cat Power, Neko Case and Jenny Lewis.

Obviously, collaboration with other artists is an integral part of his creative process. His record suggests a remarkable level of assertiveness to work with others. And yet, M. Ward has always had a reputation for shyness. At his live performances, he usually has a cap or sunglasses pulled over his eyes, suggesting that he is a more withdrawn type of songwriter. Ward embodies opposites in the same way that A Wasteland Companion does.

The bluesy “Sweetheart” is a fascinating example of this. Zooey Deschanel makes a cameo appearance, and her voice sounds a lot like one of the Ronettes, suggesting that M. Ward is experimenting with Phil Spector’s revolutionary recording technique first employed in the ’60s. Dubbed the “Wall of Sound,” this method utilized echo chambers in the studio to create a dense, strong effect. It is evident that M. Ward is reaching back into an era where blues and rock ‘n’ roll were all the rage. Yet Ward’s verses tone down that rage, as the track dances between the soothing quality of Ward’s voice and the more bombastic rock ‘n’ roll that the instruments emulate.

“I Get Ideas” is another playful rock song that is tamed enough by mellow singing to produce a blend one could only hear from this record, with Ward solidifying a marriage between bluesy rock and folksy vocals. However, the marriages do not only occur within songs — they also exist between them. The blues-influenced tracks strike a careful balance with the acoustic ones more characteristic of Ward’s previous solo work.

Immediately following “I Get Ideas,” the album progresses to a song that could not seem more different, called “The First Time I Ran Away.” Its foundations are formed by a wash of acoustic guitar, complete with subtle, calming harmonies that differ completely from the more reckless bedrock that formed “Sweetheart” and “I Get Ideas.” The track uses ambient choral effects that add depth to Ward’s vocals. Yet, Ward’s voice does enough to the mood of both kinds of songs to make them feel similar, making it feel as if the whole album came from one continuous thought.

Given Ward’s comments about joining opposites in art, it seems adequate to judge him on that basis. He does well to bring the influences he has gleaned from his various collaborations into his solo work while retaining the mellow intimacy that helps define him.

Considering how repetitive and similar popular albums can be today, it seems that our most famous artists should take a page from Ward’s book and think about how being more adventurous in applying different influences can lead to a more diverse, and compelling, work of art.

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