Desert Island Songs: A review of M. Ward’s “Migration Stories”
The picture is clear to see. A man is stranded on a desert island with only an old Gibson and a bottle of whiskey, and is resting his back against a palm on the beach, slowly strumming away. This man sings a blend of sweat-soaked rock ’n’ roll and old-timey folk. He seems out of time, like the human equivalent of a ship inside a bottle.
Such is the mood of “Migration Stories,” the new album by M. Ward. Its raggedy Americana chops feel as if they have been steeped like an old whiskey, left to absorb flavor and color inside of a barrel in a backroom. The album gently guides us through the sounds and images of M. Ward’s career, moving through the murky sounds of his early work (like his wonderfully dark album “The Transfiguration of Vincent”) to the Hi-Fi chorus-driven work that has defined his career in the last decade.
Ward shows off his guitar raga skills on “Stevens’ Snow Man,” a throwback to the sounds of guitar wunderkinds like John Fahey, who has been one of Ward’s biggest influences over the years. Ward’s guitar has always been one of the defining parts of his music. If you’ve ever seen him live, you know that he can shred with the best of him. The studio, though, seems to bring out the technician in Ward, and he doesn’t shy from showing off the subtly of his chord-work on “Stevens’ Snow Man,” which sparkles in a mix of folk finger-style and classical guitar lines.
As much as this album muses on migrations through time and space, the album also functions as a sort of migration of sound through the defining eras of Ward’s career. We get a few tracks that echo the stripped-down folk of his early career, songs that could have been ripped from an old tape in a Columbia Records backroom, as well as a taste of his high-definition pop work that he’s played with the last ten years, such as on “Unreal City.” Unfortunately, “Unreal City” is the weakest part of an album that is otherwise serenely transcendent.
Don’t get me wrong, “Unreal City” is a decent song, it’s just that it interrupts the slow burning atmosphere the album had curated on the first half. It’s hi-fi mix of upbeat drums and elevated vocal harmonies is standard fare for M.Ward, though it doesn’t fit with the smoky elements that…