The songwriter M. Ward doesn't keep a journal. But A Wasteland Companion, the new album by the itinerant musician released last month by Merge Records, serves as a travelogue for the last few and very busy of years of his life. To record Companion, Ward made stops at eight studios in Austin, Los Angeles, Tucson, Omaha, New York and even Bristol, England. And at every stop, he called his friends in town to join him for a session.
"Music has the ability to record memory better than journals or books or taking pictures," Ward says. "I think it ignites the imagination a bit more."
Ward is 38 years old, and he's been play guitar for 28 of them. During that time, he says he has been "definitely influenced by [his] friends," and that the collaborative process behind Companion is partly the result of recent projects outside the scope of his solo material. Although he's garnered critical acclaim for his own albums, he's gained more popular attention as a master collaborator. Several years ago, Ward became one-fourth of the indie supergroup Monsters of Folk (with Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis) and one-half of the flimsy pop duo She & Him (with actress Zooey Deschanel). Those other projects helped boost his profile, it seems: While 2009's Hold Time peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, Monsters of Folk's self-titled debut peaked at No. 15 the same year. The next year, She & Him's Volume II peaked at No. 6.
In the midst of recording and touring with Monsters and She & Him, Ward found himself again focused on the meaning and passage of time, a theme that runs through much of his work. "I think that my last few records have been obsessed with time," Ward explains. "That obsession was getting into my songwriting, constructing the record." To help with that construction, he called on a variety of friends: Mogis and Deschanel, of course, but also Howe Gelb (whose Ow Om record label released Ward's debut, Duet For Guitars # 2, in 2000), PJ Harvey producer John Parish, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Dr. Dog bassist Toby Leaman.
Ward allowed each of them to leave distinctive marks on Companion; together they built a record that moves between moods and sounds from track to track. Parish, for instance, produced "Primitive Girl" in Bristol, playing a twinkling marimba on the track; its pop jangles behind optimistic piano. "Watch the Show," however, shuffles eerily with Leaman's trudging bass while Ward warns of a television hijacker. On the Daniel Johnston cover "Sweetheart," Deschanel frolics alongside Ward in a country-romp duet punctuated by girl-group handclaps.
Another playful cover, "I Get Ideas," was originally an Argentinian song, made popular in the U.S. by Louis Armstrong and Tony Martin in the '50s. With its rockabilly guitar swing and supporting vocals from Rachel Cox of Brooklyn's Oakley Hall, it carries the same deep sense of nostalgia that has served as the backbone of Ward's music from the start. "I still get most inspiration from old records," Ward explains.
Given the origins of Companion, it's appropriate that the album covers a lot of stylistic ground. But the opener, "Clean Slate," recorded at Ward's home base of Portland, connects the record with the rest of his catalogue. The only other musician on the track is Mike Coykendall, who has worked with Ward since 2003's The Transfiguration of Vincent. His gentle bass strum lies under Ward's gravelly vocals, making for a simple lullaby. For almost three minutes, Ward is once again just a singer-songwriter with a peculiar voice.
"I want people to come to it with an open mind," Ward says of Companion. "That's all I can ask for." In the wandering among places and people that this album encompasses, it may be difficult at times to find Ward, but he's still there. As he poignantly confesses on the unaccompanied "There's a Key," "When I'm stuck between what we have done and what we're gonna do/ there's a key on my piano that I play for you." A Wasteland Companion captures Ward in the midst of a journey, clutching certain moments and experiences to bring back home.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A little help."