I would never have expected Matthew Ward to be a fan of T.S. Eliot. M. Ward albums are often breezy. His songs rarely exceed four minutes. He dabbles in genres from folk to synth rock to Christmas pop. Eliot, on the other hand, likes brooding statements, long tales of anomie worlds apart from Ward’s peppy wanderlust. Eliot’s writing is dense and hyper-literate. Ward fingerpicks simply and pleasantly, sings of the working man. To call them uncommon bedfellows is to put it lightly.
As a result, it is no surprise that the album title is a misnomer. Songs like “Pure Joy”—with its unmitigated gratitude and its cheery gospel choirs—have no place alongside Eliot’s masterpiece. The album is a companion only in the other sense, that of a friend who offers kindness to someone else’s suffering. In “A Clean Slate,” depression is short-lived, nothing to get bogged down by. “The First Time I Ran Away” focuses on the beauty of the experience of running away; the pain is muted beneath warm, Fleet Foxes-style harmonies. The lighthearted nostalgia of “Wild Goose” might have been the work of a West Coast Robert Frost.
With A Wasteland Companion, Ward is at his best when he does the least. The title track bathes in Ward’s hot bath of a voice, lets his crisp guitar plucks cleanse as if soapy foam. Like many of the album’s songs, it’s too short, a rest stop when we want a destination. Ward’s pop songs are much less successful. “Primitive Girl” has too much synth confetti and too much repetition. “Sweetheart” is oversweet—its lyrics recall Help!-era Beatles. Ward’s love songs, especially “I Get Ideas,” come across as sincere but cliched.
A Wasteland Companion was produced in eight different studios and includes cameo performances from 18 different musicians. That sort of collaboration should have resulted in something epic, something bigger than the sum of its parts. But each song feels like it takes place in a different environment, some unspoken distance away from the one previous. Ward adapts to the additional performers, to the new locations, instead of sticking to one over-arching theme. That’s a skill Ward could have learned from Eliot.