ALBUM REVIEW: M. Ward – Migration Stories

M. Ward

‘Migration Stories’ is the latest album from prolific writer, producer and performer M. Ward. It is out on Anti Records on 3rd April. The world is currently living through an unprecedented period of travel restrictions with many countries in lockdown and ‘Migration Stories’ feels like a meditation on the exact opposite of that reality. It’s an album of hazy, languid and, at times, other-worldly tunes about travel, migration and discovery. There is a beautiful dream-like quality to much of the album which creates that sense of being half-awake and half-asleep and feeling slightly disoriented.

This is Ward’s 10th album and to create it he journeyed to Quebec, Canada to work with Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry, producer/mixer Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine) and Teddy Impakt. The collection of 11 songs on ‘Migration Stories’ are inspired by tales of human migration. The songs have their origins in pictures from newspaper and television reports, stories told by friends and tales from Ward’s own family history. Says Ward of the stories which informed these songs:

“Some time went by, the stories wove together and I remember them now closer to characters in a dream of how people could treat each other than any kind of front-page news realism. I think music subconsciously – whether writing or listening – is a filter for me. Helping to process all the bad news into something new to build from. Some records to me are like self-fulfilling prophecies – visualizing change to wish something into being. Those records inspired this one.”

Most of the songs were captured in the studio almost entirely on the very first take and Ward injects huge amounts of emotion into them, creating a set of songs that create different narratives of human journeys. It almost feels like the soundtrack to an anthology movie on the subject. Ward’s voice is gorgeous and tender throughout and the instrumentation and production is deftly handled so as not to overpower the songs, leaving them to weave their magic.

Some of the songs feel like they have something of the night in them, creating an undercurrent of displacement – a sense of darkness, but only a sense. The overarching sense you get from the album is one of release, freedom and at times optimism, none more so than on fantastic mid-album number ‘Unreal City’ which marks a break from the dreamy and hazy first half of the album, bringing synths and driving beats set against a fantastically optimistic melody. It feels like a flying dream, where you are soaring above a city at night looking at the lights and shapes below and feeling a sense of release and peace.

Gentle and eerie album opener ‘Migration of Souls’ imagines a reunion beyond the boundaries of space and time, while the slow-shuffling ‘Heaven’s Nail and Hammer’ boasts a lovely western guitar with classic twang. It sounds like a cowboy on a wagon train is keeping his compadres entertained as they travel through the night, with the imagery of a hammer punching a nail in the sky to create the stars. ‘Independent Man’ sounds slightly more urgent with some sax sounds that pull you out of the western meditation.

The album includes Ward’s deft take on the 1940 cowboy ballad, “Along The Santa Fe Trail”, popularized by Glenn Miller. He manages to take this folk classic and apply his amazing and talented artistry to create a transportive sonic landscape. His genius is in how much he leaves out of the production, knowing just the right mix of ingredients to get the perfect song. Like a painter that leaves some of the canvas bare on purpose to convey shapes and textures.

‘Migration Stories’ is a paean to the power of imagination in a world under stress. Gentle songs and tender vocals transport the listener to a world where anything is possible if you can think of it. M. Ward has built an unsurpassed catalogue of modern folk albums that are drenched in emotion and creativity. ‘Migration Stories’ is a worthy addition to that canon – put it on, close your eyes and go travelling.

‘Migration Stories’ – Tracklist:

1. Migration of Souls                                         

2. Heaven’s Nail and Hammer                    

3. Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show               

4. Independent Man                                          

5. Stevens’ Snow Man                                       

6. Unreal City  

7. Real Silence 

8. Along the Santa Fe Trail # 

9. Chamber Music

10. Torch

11. Rio Drone

# Written by Al Dubin, Hugh Williams


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