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There was once a time when the name M. Ward was reserved for only the hushiest kind of record collectors, the kind of dudes who scratched John Fahey and Leo Kottke records off their wish lists one by one, who didn't think alt-country was a dirty word, the kind of folks who took the word of Tucson's Howe Gelb (an early M. Ward booster) as dusty, sacred gospel.
But it's been awhile. These days, M. Ward's name brings to mind all sorts of big-time connections: He played guitar for Norah Jones, toured with indie folk supergroup Monsters of Folk, and has gained far more attention for She & Him, his duo with the big-eyed, even bigger-voiced TV and film star Zooey Deschanel, than for any of the quiet, stark "American Primitive" guitar collections he's issued under his own name.
And that's fine. Wasteland Companion, his seventh studio album, shows that while he may be busy with the kind of music that attracts Urban Outfitter shoppers and even the fringes of mainstream America, Ward hasn't dulled his solo approach. Yeah, Deschanel is here, adding her dulcet tones to the wonderful, lilting cover of Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart," and there are tracks like the bounding "I Get Ideas," which wouldn't sound of place in a Hollywood rom-com.
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Yet Ward still has a firm grasp on the melancholy, transient folk that earned him early admirers. "The First Time I Ran Away" sounds like it was beamed from the same transistor radio he named his 2005 record after, and opening track "Clean Slate" features Ward's signature yearning — for transcendence, a fresh start, or something even less corporeal. Here, the slide guitar speaks as much as Ward's whisper. The track is dedicated to Alex Chilton, who died in 2010 right before a show his legendary band Big Star was scheduled to play at South by Southwest. Ward took part in the musical memorial.
"I think every record should have its peaks and valleys," Ward says over the phone, speaking to me exactly as softly as I'd imagined him speaking. "The more that I make records, the more I've been trying to make the peaks brighter and the valleys darker. They offset each other. If it weren't for one, the other wouldn't feel as good, I think. I mean, that's life [laughs]."
Recorded at studios in New York, Austin, Los Angeles, and Tucson, the record is the most geographically diverse record Ward has made. The most varied, too. He recorded chunks of it live with guest musicians (including Gelb, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, Toby Leamen of Dr. Dog, and more).
"Something I like about live records is there's a bit of time travel and movement from place to place," Ward says.
"It's a wise man who can laugh at himself / With disaster at the end of the line / Saying 'Who are you to think that you can keep from crying now," Ward sings on "Primitive Girl" as it shifts from gallop to soft electric piano blur.
Wasteland Companion may come with a bleak, hopeless-sounding title, but Ward doesn't want to wallow in the gloom.
"[The title] refers to lot of things," he says. "One of the things I think about a lot is inspiration and where it comes from. And asking yourself what are the things that keep you going in whatever you do for a living. And sometimes you don't know what those things are until you are in a place of destitution, a place where nothing seems to be thriving or growing.
"I like the idea of focusing on the part of life that inspires you to continue. So a lot of the record has the same sort of backdrop and shadows, but I hope that in the foreground there's something more hopeful."
Closing with the gentle "Pure Joy," Wasteland Companion ends the same way Ward's previous albums, including 2010's Hold Time do: on a note of calm reverence. That album closed with "Shangri La," which opens with a couplet borrowed from Phoenix legends the Meat Puppets. "Up on the sun / This time tomorrow." When I tell Ward that the line resonates with me (New Times' music blog is named Up on the Sun), I can almost hear him smile through the phone.
I tell him we consider the Puppets good statesmen — something Arizona often lacks. "Yeah, the Meat Puppets and Howe Gelb," he replies.
If he doesn't mind, Ward himself would make a great honorary addition to the list.