M Ward rose to prominence largely because of his association with beloved Bright Eyes boy Conor Oberst. He reached a different audience via his collaboration with The New Girl and he put out a successful album with Oberst, Mike Mogis and My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames as Monsters of Folk. But all of that is rendered unnecessary background information with A Wasteland Companion’s aptly-titled opening track, “Clean Slate,” in which Ward reminds us that he’s very much his own musician— albeit not exactly the same one he’s been for seven albums now.
“Clean Slate” sets the stage for what could be a breezy, Northwest-Pacific-Coast-beachside record, but follow-up track “Primitive Girl” switches up the pace. With its speedy piano hits and filtered, echoed vocals, Ward sounds like his friend and collaborator Oberst going through a heavy Beatles-and-amphetamine phase (I don’t know if that’s a thing people do, but I’m sure someone out there has).
Fans of She & Him will find solace in “Sweetheart,” a track complete with the cutesy handclaps and “oohs” and “aahs” we’ve come to expect from Zooey Deschanel. Otherwise, the record plays like a more typical M Ward solo disc— alt-Americana and shiny folk tunes interspersed with moments of soft, spare darkness. And, of course, strong lyricism. On the acoustic trance-like “Watch The Show,” for instance, Ward sings, “I remember when I was back in high school / I never thought I’d stoop so low / I thought I’d be the guy unmasking the clown not the guy polishing his nose.” Could that be a reference to Ward’s ultra-poppy She & Him project— the group that led the man to put out a mainstream Christmas album? Judging by the aforementioned Deschanel feature, probably not. But it’s been three years since Hold Time, Ward’s most commercially successful album, came out… and it’s refreshing to hear him doing things on his own again.
The album is set to be released on April 10th, but it’s currently streaming via NPR.