Music Reviews
Migration Stories

M. Ward Migration Stories

(ANTI- ) Rating - 7/10

Over a two-decade career, M. Ward's dusky, cosmic-tinged Americana recurs with startling consistency. That may sound like a backhanded compliment given the Portland singer-songwriter's inspired output, but really, it's more of a commendation. Despite following a similar sonic template through the years, every new album feels like a new detour—and Migration Stories is no exception. Here, he reflects on North America's rich immigration history, told through bite-sized stories that feel especially topical. Instead of just sticking to the personal, Ward looked into other sources—mainly newspaper clips and television reports—to make something of a loose thematic map that allows him to understand his ancestral past.

As expected, Ward's delivery is quiet and understated. On Heaven's Nail and Hammer, a wanderer drives along a treacherous path as vintage, reverberated guitars play in the background. The similarly even-tempered Coyote Mary's Traveling Show reads like a folk tale, as Ward fleshes out his poetic musings over a bluesy minor stomp. Halfway into the album, Unreal City picks up the pace with an upbeat groove and "ba da da" harmonizing—an ode to growing up and finding peace in Los Angeles where Ward lays across a bed of vintage synthesizers (a first for him). It's a song that, though cheerful, documents the long-contested debate Los Angelenos have with wondering when the "big one" finally hits.

As Migration Stories progresses, Ward's stories become gradually more anecdotal and literate. Torch is quite powerful, where he imagines a scenario of persecution and danger (playfully recreating the sound of a heartbeat to capture the sensation of fear). Overall, Ward packs a lot of lyrical substance into an otherwise lean listen, even if sometimes the symbolic imagery can feel strained in execution. He has undoubtedly perfected these affectations in a way that feels natural, as does his retro-leaning motifs, which feel comforting and reassuring even at their most sinister. Some of the arrangements stick, and some of them don't, but it's always enjoyable to hear where his open-ended narratives take you.