Timeless, romantic folk from a singer whose not-so-monstrous reputation precedes him.
Natalie Hardwick 2012
Endless grafter and Americana chieftain Matthew Ward specialises in the kind of knowing multi-collaborative musicianship that prodigious US alt-sters pull off with such swagger. He’s worked with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst on the misleadingly named Monsters of Folk, one of the least-beastly supergroups to ever exist. He drafted in actress and indie pin-up Zooey Deschanel for twee-tinged duo She & Him.
So it appears that time for solo songwriting comes whenever his creative juices start trickling. A Wasteland Companion is a scattered body of random missives and musings – one imagines it began as some tattered cigarette papers decorated with inner monologue laid down in chicken scratch. The preceding work, his sixth album Hold Time, is more cohesive, but Ward has always written some songs that prompt a pinging internal light bulb and others that seem unremarkable.
This album is wildly diverse, the product of recordings in eight studios, and its running order initially seems arbitrary. Opener Clean Slate is locomotive and pastoral, but has a paranoid energy and contemplative underbelly – understandably, since it’s an ode to the late Alex Chilton of Big Star. In an uncomfortable flip, Primitive Girl ups the tempo and previously muffled vocals become gruffer to facilitate a fuller sound.
Me and My Shadow is raw again, but here freak folk gives way to resonant rockabilly. Deschanel adds saccharine tints to a chokingly poppy cover of Daniel Johnston’s Sweetheart, turning what was once a hungover, clapped-out ditty tapped out on a cardboard box into slop worthy of a John Hughes soundtrack. But later the album levels out into timeless, romantic folk.
Ward’s vocals bind this set, even if at times his cocksure rasp jars with fractured lyrics. Highlights are confessional, unadorned guitar solo tracks like Wild Goose. Most songs weigh in around three minutes but some have the ability to slow time down to a hypnotic plod that has you hooked for what feels like a lot longer. The sequencing seems illogical on first listen, but someone as dab-handed as Ward surely intended this, and the rollercoaster becomes easier to digest with each listen.