Side projects are often where artists turn to focus on themselves, take risks and test out sounds they wouldn’t with their main act. This is not the case with California-born singer-songwriter M. Ward. He has recently gained fame as the male half of She & Him alongside Zooey Deschanel, as well as through his work with Monsters of Folk, where he holds his own alongside Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. On stage with such big names (I’m looking at you, “New Girl”), Ward’s individual creativity may suffer; however, on his latest solo album, A Wasteland Companion, Ward flexes his artistic muscles, blending acoustic folk with meticulous production techniques.

His album opener, “Clean Slate,” is straightforward folk, with Ward’s lyrical introspection drifting like a specter over the twang of a morose guitar. Ward presents a sort of tabula rasa for listeners, cleansing their palates from the indie pop of She & Him. While he remains true to traditional folk staples like fingerpickingand crooned harmonies, Ward proves he can still write a mean pop tune on follow-up “Primitive Girl.” A bright piano hook stands in surprising contrast to the gravelly sound of his voice. This is Ward at his most accessible, his work with Deschanel readily apparent.

“Me and My Shadow” begins with the crackle of Ward’s voice as if through the speakers of your parents’ beat-up transistor radio, distant and melancholy. Then Ward seems to enter the same room as you; gone is the low-fi intimacy, replaced by a much cleaner sound. The song quickly builds with a heavily distorted guitar growl tearing across pounding surf-rock drums.

“Sweetheart” remains equally — if not more — upbeat. Unfortunately, Ward begins to lose his lyrical edge with lines like “You have a nice smile, baby; you drive me crazy.” This kind of language would be understandable from a certain Canadian pop superstar, but after multiple albums of contemplative and at times brooding songs, “Sweetheart” proves saccharine and disappointing. Handclaps and doo-wop harmonies, as well as a guest appearance from Deschanel, make for a song steeped in nostalgia to the point of saturation.

Meanwhile, on songs like “I Get Ideas” and “A Wasteland Companion,” Ward pays tasteful homage to his legendary influences. Comparisons to Elvis are inevitable with sock-hop dance-along cymbal crashes and a melody as optimistic as the lyrics. The title track takes Ward back to his blues roots, and the combination of quivering strings and ambient noise from crowds channels the likes of Woody Guthrie or Billy Bragg.

The second half of the album slows down considerably with songs like “There’s a Key” and “Crawl After You,” which sound much more like Crosby, Stills & Nash or Daniel Johnston than Ward’s fellow Monsters of Folk. This is not to say that the latter portion of the album marks a loss in momentum; rather, it’s a shift. Ward focuses on songwriting rather than flashy production, but he does not compromise any of his musical integrity. Textures are much smoother and more subdued as a string section plays a heavy role in the final songs.

While Ward plays it relatively safe over the course of the album, fans of his vocal flexibility and folk instrumentation will be pleased, and new listeners will have no trouble accessing his latest work.wasteland

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