“THE POWER THAT music has is sublime, but the scope of music you hear on the radio is so narrow that it makes me think I can give it a shot.” Matt Ward told me this during an interview almost a decade ago.
Ward clearly takes his time with everything he does, but his new album might be the “shot” that hits the target. While no one is likely to mistake A Wasteland Companion (Merge Records) for something hatched from Kanye’s hit factory, this time around the part-time Portlander has spiffed himself up a bit, applying a coat of polish to his trusty, dusty, itinerant folk persona. It’s a record that’s consistently appealing—not only to newbie fans who have discovered Ward through his proximity to She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel (who contributes her summery vocals to a few songs here), but also to those of us who’ve been on board with his sleepy velvet tenor since the beginning.
When I was a younger man, I thought the pain of defeat would last forever. But now I don’t know what it would take to make my heart back down, ‘cuz I only have to wait a little while before I get my clean slate.
—Track 1, “Clean Slate”
In an era of elusive stylistic chameleons, Ward remains a reliably honest and thoughtful songwriter, one who scours American musical traditions for things he can use to amp up the charm of his own compositions. Traveling from “Clean Slate,” an optimistic acoustic confessional, to sweet, swinging ’50s rockers like “Sweetheart” and “I Get Ideas,” one doesn’t need a road map to follow Ward’s mood swings. When troubled, as on “Me & My Shadow,” he wonders if promoting his art will turn him into a show-business phony—a perfectly legitimate concern. When he’s in a good mood on songs like “Primitive Girl” and “Pure Joy,” the background vocals swell into dreamy choruses of “Ahhhhs,” just as they’ve done for everyone from Elvis to Bon Iver.
Speaking of the latter, since the Wanderer from Wisconsin recently took home a Best New Artist Grammy, it’s perfectly reasonable to envision similar success for M. Ward, an inventive folksinger with a distinctively alluring voice who’s blazed his own trails in the emotional wilderness.