The yardstick for folk and its myriad sub-genres always returns to the level of intrigue that the troubadour sculpting it wields. What, then of Matthew Ward, whose collaborations with Zooey Deschanel, performance at a Barack Obama rally and slightly indulgent side-project with Bright Eyes over the past few years have threatened to overshadow the subtle chameleonic talents that first brought the 38 year old to acclaim?
‘A Wasteland Companion’ was written from studio to studio, documenting Ward’s travels since previous LP ‘Hold Time’ breached the US Top 50 in 2009. Ward approaches this LP much as he did his last, shifting between styles from the ’50s do-wop of ‘I Get Ideas’ to more withdrawn acoustic-based tracks, such as ‘There’s A Key’ and ‘Pure Joy’ – in recognition of his own recent nomadic history.
This isn’t the leap that its predecessor was from 2006’s ‘Post-War’, however, and notice of Ward’s ascension does arrive in the almost indigestibly rich cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘Sweetheart’ and other overly polished songs such as ‘Primitive Girl’. It features a guest spot from Deschanel, and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish are among 18 other artists involved throughout. This is fine, except it was the subtle undercurrents that made Ward’s genre shifting so palatable on ‘Hold Time’, and on occasion that’s lost here.
However, in the album’s quieter segments he proves that his deft touch remains. Opening track ‘Clean Slate’ is a moving tribute to Big Star’s Alex Chilton, who died in March 2010, whilst ‘Wild Goose’ lyrically contemplates loss and escape. It’s in these moments where Ward’s depth of feeling proves that, whilst as continue to build around him, his conviction remains constant. You couldn’t ask for much more.
Simon Jay Catling