Matthew Stephen Ward’s Cottage Industry of Traveling Song is doing pretty damn brisk business these days. His prolific personal brand, which has averaged an album a year since the mid-2000s, between his M. Ward, She & Him and Monsters of Folk projects, is arguably at its peak right now, if only in terms of public profile and general recognition. If you worked at an independent record retailer—hold your sick burn, smartypants, they absolutely do still exist—during this most recent holiday season, chances are you watched a metric fuckload of A Very She & Him Christmas walk out the door on both CD and vinyl (not to mention its digital version, on Amazon at least, selling more than nearly all of the competition during the Christmas 2011 season). Add to this various production credits, one-off appearances and the like, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a very good time to be M. Ward. Busy is better than bored, as it were.
A Wasteland Companion is Ward’s seventh proper solo album, and it certainly has it moments, even if many of them are fairly derivative. “Primitive Girl” is basically a rewrite of 2005’s “Big Boat,” with big, pristine production and less attitude. The rollicking good time is reduced to a catchy derivative, the scruffy charm smoothed out for mass consumption. On the surface, especially if you’re not familiar with the original, it’s a solid song, a decent impression—kind of like a guy on the street trying to sell you a Bolex watch on the cheap. But anyone with a sense of Ward’s history will recognize it for what it is: a smooth, well-meaning tune without much in the way of original ideas. Elsewhere, “Me and My Shadow” is ominous in a vague, entertaining way, Zooey Deschanel (the She to Ward’s Him) adding chilling back-up vocals. “I Get Ideas” is an innocent, Buddy Holly-esque “let’s go roll around with no clothes on” flirtation, equal parts retro-wink and endearing come-on.
While all of the above tracks are fun listens, they mostly reference Ward’s back catalog as opposed to pushing it into exciting new places. This wouldn’t be a problem for an artist’s second or third album, but Ward is immensely gifted and thoughtful in his approach to music—he should know better than to tread water at this point. The flipside, if one is lucky, to working so hard for so long is a neverending queue of things with which to keep one spinning the proverbial plates, as it were. But the downside to that flipside is that, sometimes, that can result in overused, overburdened talent. A Wasteland Companion becomes increasingly easy to ignore as its run time drags on. Hopefully Ward sheds a few projects going forward, lest his solo career starts doing the same.