I didn't reach this conclusion immediately. The album opens in a similar indie pop-rock happy vibe as his duet work -- Deschanel even shows up for a track, a bubble gum sweet, retro (yup) track titled (of course!!) "Sweetheart." It's cute. Of course it's cute. The fact that M. Ward shares vocal time with her makes me like it fine (often, listening to She & Him, I find myself longing to hear more of Him).
But then, about 18 minutes in, the album takes a turn, appropriately, with the title track, "A Wasteland Companion." Suddenly, things turn darker. Slower. Opening with the piercing twang of a blues guitar riff as classic as it is compelling, M. Ward steps away from the sweet and into the rough, raw territory that only the best indie singer-songwriters seem to reach: the song fades out into an ambient drone of violin, enlivened by the delicate picking of his guitar. This goes into the chugging Johnny Cash-esque rhythm of "Watch The Show," his smokey, toothsome vocals making words seem rounded, and heavy with meaning. "I was raised by a tribe of Vegas cowboys," he warbles in "Crawl After You," and based on the pathos in his sound, I'm inclined to believe him (the swell of violins, followed by an electric guitar power riff straight out of a stadium show, doesn't hurt things, either).
This second half of the album feels far from the single-ready tracks of the beginning, including the aforementioned "Sweetheart" and the previously released "Primitive Girl," though his skill is evident in the catchy likability of his singles. But it's here in this second half that M. Ward reveals his creativity, his willingness to experiment -- in short, his chops as a guitar-playing force as aware of the devilish side of rock 'n' roll as the bubblegum-sweet sides. It's the side of him that makes me sit up and listen. That makes me decry She & Him. That makes me think, listening to A Wasteland Companion's closing track "Pure Joy" and beginning the album over again, oh yes. This is what I've been missing.
You can stream A Wasteland Companion on NPR here.