by C. Familton
When Matthew Ward began to gather curious listeners and build his audience with his fourth album Transfiguration of Vincent in 2003 he felt like somewhat of a mysterious figure with that husky, otherworldly voice that conjured up images of dusty country roads, dimly-lit juke joints and back porch sunset strumming. As his profile has grown and he has ventured into side projects (Monsters Of Folk, She & Him) and guest appearances on other artist’s albums some of that shady charm has worn off to reveal a more down to earth singer songwriter.
A Wasteland Companion finds Ward attempting to rekindle some of his magic that felt dulled on recent releases, especially 2009’s Hold Time. Far from that being a bad album, it just felt like he was on autopilot and had lost some of his edge and in the process some of the songs felt subdued and listless. From the opening Clean Slate (a statement of intent perhaps?) Ward immediately appears in fine form with his relaxed voice sounding warm and intimate up close to the microphone. He jumps from that straight into Primitive Girl telling a story about how a lack of complexities can sometimes be a liberating relationship experience. Me And My Shadow introduces some gloriously buzzing distorted guitars over a pseudo surf rock beat and already three tracks in A Wasteland Companion is sounding like a wonderful grab bag approach showcasing the diverse capabilities of Ward.
His time with Zooey Deschanel in She & Him has allowed him to perfect sweet upbeat love songs and he uses those skills to great effect on Sweetheart with Deschanel guesting on vocals. Where some of their duo work sounds a little forced and saccharine here they sound perfect together as 50’s melodies and handclaps create a real mood of authenticity and carefree breezy country pop.
The flipside to Ward’s country and rock n roll songs is his ability to pen a delightfully tender folk song in the vein of Nick Drake. The First Time I Ran Away is one of his best with gently swelling strings adding a baroque feel to his ethereal vocal delivery. The lightness of touch on the track allows it to float along with a wistful air of sweet nostalgia and it is one of the best moments on the LP.
The deeper you get into A Wasteland Companion the more depth is revealed in Ward’s songwriting and in particular the way he arranges his songs. The stylistic variation in the songs themselves is modest yet he has taken great care to complement and enhance his songs with instrumentation, vocal effects like reverb and delay and the overall production that feels warm and spacious, organic even when electricity is sparking across the busier guitar tracks. From the slow layering of piano, violin, drums and vocals on Crawl After You to the dreamy haze of the gorgeous closing track Pure Joy Ward has subtly built a depth of field into the album that is quite impressive considering its 35 minute brevity.
A Wasteland Companion is an ideal summation of Matthew Ward’s abilities as a writer, player and producer who continues to develop his craft within the traditional forms of country, rock, blues and folk without sounding one iota like a modern imposter.
This review was first published in One More Robot Magazine