M Ward is the kind of artist that just seems to always be making something. He always seems to have a record out, and the sheer depth of his discography can be breathtaking for the unprepared. In short, the man is a workhorse. And he’s collaborated with an incredible array of people: Mavis Staples, Jenny Lewis, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, Peter Buck, these being a few among many. He’s also half of twee-pop superduo She & Him and folk supergroup Monsters Of Folk.
Migration Stories is his10th album, and for this collection he decamped to Quebec, Canada to work with three of the hundred members of Arcade Fire‘s team: Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry, and producer Craig Silvey. The songs that feature here are drawn from a well of stories, primarily concerned with that age-old artistic conceit – the very nature of what it means to ‘move’. Ward says that for him, “some records are… self-fulfilling prophecies – visualising change to wish something into being. Those records inspired this one.”
Ward’s voice has always been one of his greatest assets. It can be slinky, sultry, clear, sexy, sincere… and he can switch on the drop of a hat. Throughout Migration Stories, he tends to lean on the sultrier side – just listen to his arched-eyebrow croon on Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show. When he does add a little grit, like on the loping country rocker Independent Man, he does so with a wink.
The instrumentation isn’t too shabby either. The yowling guitar on Independent Man is splendid, the synthesizers on Unreal City divine. Migration Of Souls, which opens the record, plays up an eerie, unsettling atmosphere with acoustic guitars seemingly guiding us through an empty cosmos. It’s positively Lynchian. There’s also a fine run-through of Glenn Miller‘s popular number Along The Santa Fe Trail, which sounds so beautifully aged that it could have plausibly been recorded at any point in the last 70 years, if not for the telling Be My Baby drumbeat that runs throughout.
Migration Stories is a slight album, and a brisk listen – but it is a totally accomplished project. Ward and his Arcade Fire stooges hit you with some nostalgia, and a comforting sense of warmth, and then they depart, never outstaying their welcome, but not leaving too much of an impression that you feel exhausted and never want to hear the thing again (Neon Bible, anyone?). Good, if not quite great.