Modern folkie Matthew Ward may be more well-known these days as the Him to Zooey Deschanel’s She, but serving as retro indie for the Starbucks soccer-mom set hasn’t always been the man’s calling card – before She & Him, before linking up with Jim James and Conor Oberst for Monsters of Folk, there was M. Ward, plainspoken folk singer with an arsenal of tasteful lo-fi melodies, a battered acoustic guitar, and a particularly deft fingerpicking technique. This version of M. Ward quickly became Merge’s poster child, and, more importantly, an icon to the rootsy, the flannel-clad, and the bearded who became indie-rock poster children in the late 2000’s.

Not that M. Ward is to be lumped in with anyone else. His latest, A Wasteland Companion, sets him apart from a sizable pact of tangentially similar artists; like his other records, it’s a collection of dusty, autumnal, incisively retro folk-rock, but unlike his previous work, Ward allows the pop smarts that he’s accrued over the years to bubble to the surface. He hasn’t morphed into an arena rocker overnight, mind you, but it’s evident that his time with quirky-by-numbers coquette Zooey Deschanel has rubbed off on him. She & Him’s blatant sixties fetish rears its head on several numbers, and solo Ward weaves Brill Building pop, Bruce Springsteen dustbowl imagery, and, yes, Miss Deschanel herself into his folksy tapestry. This slight stylistic shift isn’t for the worse: M. Ward’s an appealing enough songwriter that his excursions  onto bouncier terrain contribute to an album that ebbs and flows naturally, instead of flagging near the end, as several of his previous records have. A Wasteland Companion finds an unlikely analogue in Tom Waits – sure, Ward only sounds like he smokes a pack a day as opposed to seventeen, but he immerses himself in the same sort of character-centric musical folk cinema that is Waits’ stock and trade. In fact, Wasteland plays like a likable sister album to Waits’ recent Bad As Me.

Wasteland‘s tracklist may be peppered with rollicking Buddy Holly-style jams like a punchy cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Sweetheart” or the bashed-out-in-a-garage take on Louis Armstrong’s “I Get Ideas”, but between the flashier moments, M. Ward’s contemplative baritone lends weight and poignancy to a number of lower-key folk yarns. Opener “Clean Slate” breeds instant familiarity with its picked guitar and that lovely chorus falsetto – shades of Elliott Smith – and as a result, A Wasteland Companion is home to the most immediately nostalgic side-one-track-one since Justin Vernon opened Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore set with “Perth”. The creaky, stormy rockabilly of “Watch the Show”, meanwhile, needs only to be stripped of its percussion to fit comfortably into Springsteen’s Nebraska, with its doomy air and probing character study; it’s also home to one of Ward’s most potent couplets in “I remember back when I was in high school, I never thought I’d stoop so low/ I thought I’d be the guy unmasking the clown, not the guy out polishing his nose.” And then there’s “Crawl To You”, which at first piano chime sounds like an outtake from the back end of a Ben Folds record, but quickly proves to be a bruised, conciliatory ballad in the grand Waits tradition. It’s gorgeous, and while sawing strings waft in and out of the recording, it’s never too orchestrated or overcooked; like the rest of A Wasteland Companion, it’s just enough to hit home.

And so, M. Ward’s A Wasteland Companion emerges as one of the most unexpected pleasures of the young year; it’s indie enough to not need glossy production to tart it up, but pop-smart enough to push Ward’s ineffable melodic sense to the fore. It’s a warm, poignant record with pleasures that sneak up on the listener; it’s a whole album of songs that aim directly for that sweet spot between the ribs that “Chinese Translation” nailed for us back in 2006. Whether you find She & Him charming homage or garish pastiche, there’s no denying one thing: when Ward steps up to the songwriting plate, Him nails it, every time.

Grade: A

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