With this his seventh studio album, singer-songwriter Matthew Stephen Ward, better known by his stage name M. Ward, continues on a path of starry-eyed myth making in the face of continued maturation and rising indie fame. More a bundle of letters than a cohesive album, 'A Wasteland Companion’ functions in skips and starts, further exploring Ward’s territory of romantic Americana, in the sense of old-fashioned courting as well as nostalgic remembering. Now 38, Ward is making music that is familiar without (yet) being redundant, and tinge of paranoia -- or simply awareness -- has crept in that perhaps was not there before.

Regardless of the label for this self-consciousness, Ward expresses discomfit with fame and its partner, media. While not reclusive, the Portland-based artist is at the least a little shy, having asked fans to refrain from photographing his performances. His best songs here -- as they have always been -- are intimate and transparent, better suited to the confidence of headphones than the gregarity of speakers. Rather than meeting everyone at the party, Ward's work has a few close friends.

Relationship is at the core of song and lyric: opener 'Clean Slate' whispers of intra-personal rebirth by way of post-break-up catharsis; the adorable 'Sweetheart' recaptures the magic tension between Ward and She & Him collaborator Zooey Daschanel, the now New Girl star again his better half, she flutters the chorus of "take my hand, we'll go walking," to which her beau replies "remember that I love you." It is when personal connection is interrupted by circumstance that tones grow dark -- in 'Me and My Shadow,' Ward vents his frustrations with social masks by way of a rockabilly stomper.

And so it seems that M. Ward's spectrum from light to dark is representative of the authenticity of the connection: he's stormiest when things are forced, such as commodification ghost story "late night host," and sunniest when he can take a girl by the hand. This, then, explains the subtle duality of the title: in the wasteland of information inundation, Ward reminds us that what's most essential is that which brings us closest together, whether between lover to lover, or artist to listener; as prophet and as pal, you can call on him, as he says the the title track, to be your companion.

8 out of 10 diffuser.fm rating

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