For the rebellious folkie in all of us, the idea behind M. Ward’s What a Wonderful Industry feels brilliant at first glance—or, perhaps, ridiculously self-important depending on who you ask. It is, after all, a proclaimed criticism of the very world Ward inhabits as a singer-songwriter. As an artist contributing his work to the music “industry”, Ward has every right to prickle and prune his way through it by any means that he sees fit. It doesn’t mean, though, that as well-meaning as some can seem in their own minds with such declarative decries, that they can’t still come across as preachy and downright embarrassing (see: Morrissey, or Liam and Noel Gallagher).
Ward, though, has always been careful about the battles he chooses and how he goes about taking them on. Renowned for his astute wit and procedural barbs, he is the sort of musically-minded individual who might take themes that might seem self-indulgent in the wrong hands and make them shine. By making his latest release a self-released surprise, too, he’s taking all future claims of being a hypocrite and burning them down to naught but ash at the front door. Self-made, self-funded, and self-released, What a Wonderful Industry features all of the progressive hallmarks of what might actually make a strong, analytical dissection of what’s right and wrong in the music biz at large.
Once you lend it your ear, though, you’ll be quick to find that it isn’t the self-indulgent mess it could have been nor the book of revelations others may claim it to be. Rather, this is Ward clearing the air and tossing his dirty laundry to the curb. Depending on how you feel about an artist biting “the hand that feeds” will greatly influence your enjoyment—and even then, to even the most progressive ears, Ward isn’t able to lithely leap over every preacher’s stereotype with relative grace. If you’re not graceful yourself, as his dear listener, you may well be led to believe early on that this is all a case of “Old Man Yells at Cloud” with his entirely unsubtle approach towards the ones he’s criticizing.
That’s kind of the wonder of it all, too, though. Here we have a very much unvarnished look into the business at large through the eyes of someone who’s been navigating those waters for a long time now. The looks that Ward gives towards the self-proclaimed hit-makers (“Miracle Man”), the skeevy managers (“Shark”), the critics of questionable morality (“Bobby”), and everyone else between his crosshairs are kind-of beautiful in their complete lack of tact. Ward’s musicality shines here as well as it ever has, too, so it’s an album still with its earworms despite the fires it sets.
Ultimately, Ward sticks to his promise with What a Wonderful Industry. Its more insular subject matter will keep it from relating to his audience as well as previous works, but it’s also one of his most personal and focused pieces of work to date. How much this barbed look on the many detractors Ward has encountered in his business of choice intrigues you will be the deciding factor in how far this album will take you. That, and if you’re cool with the idea of lending the artist a shoulder to lean on and not the other way around. This is Ward’s own chance for a cathartic release, no strings attached. If you’re in for the ride with him, it sure can be a good one.