Nearly 20 years into his career, M. Ward consistently produces albums that are classic yet fresh all at once. Ward accomplishes this again with his newest release, the atmospheric Migration Stories. M. Ward is a refreshingly subtle artist, with his guitar and distinct, yet traditional, voice forming the backbone of most of his work. His skill here is evident in how he uses those seemingly simple elements to create music that avoids feeling simple or stale. This is “guitar music,” but with a few choice outside elements, M. Ward creates an album that insists there’s nothing else you need for a good song.
This efficient album is relatively bare-bones, lyrics-wise, but chooses specific imagery to linger on instead. This lingering helps to create an evocative mood right from the jump in “Migration of Souls.” Migration Stories as a whole circles around themes and imagery associated with travel, space, silence, and the American West and Southwest. It’s the kind of album that feels like it should be coming out of a radio sat out on a rustic porch at dusk. In “Migration of Souls,” Ward sings “sailing on past/space and time/that’s how I’ll get back to you.” This elimination of temporal boundaries is laced throughout the album. A lot of the songs here evoke the past but are brought into the present through Ward’s performance. His cover of “Along the Santa Fe Trail” is a highlight, particularly because it seamlessly fits into the themes of Ward’s other tracks while being decades old.
“Migration of Souls” includes an element that shines elsewhere on the album, and that’s the smooth, subtle additions of Teddy Impakt’s saxophone. Its inclusion particularly shines on “Independent Man,” a track that builds up a moody slow-burn. One of the best elements of Migration Stories is its pace. No M. Ward album is particularly “peppy,” but Migration Stories seems to make a special attempt to slow things down. “Real Silence” ponders the silent theme, while the other tracks illustrate it by taking time to languish in instrumental sections, including two full instrumental interludes in “Steven’s Snow Man” and “Rio Drone.”
A few of the best moments feature M. Ward’s select imagery. “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer” references those title tools creating holes in the sky through which the singer can see Heaven. It’s a subtle, warm appreciation for the ability to look at the stars clearly, and it’s sung like a love song. “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show” evokes Mexican folk tales centered on the coyote, with another time-based statement: “Tomorrow is out of my range/ here now is all there is to know/ we shut the door on yesterday/ here at this traveling show.” “Unreal City,” one of Ward’s latest singles from the album, is the song that could be considered most “pop,” but it’s interestingly about the experience of growing up in California with the constant threat of “the big one,” and how you manage to live normally underneath relatively abnormal conditions.
Migration Stories ends with two sweet moments. “Chamber Music” implores the listeners to open their hearts, “one chamber left to go/that’s the one the music knows.” “Torch” also evokes the heart with its refrain of the “heart beats to its own bah bah bah.” The result is a conclusion to an album that feels classic in its production, yet continuously open-hearted and curious in its performance. It’s an earthy album that sings the praises of the natural world and the endless cycle of migration and reunification that humans enact within it.