M. Ward’s new album Migration Stories functions as a sort of concept album, or at least it centers around that central titular theme. While the album carries a fair bit of a Western sound, Ward doesn’t necessarily address the sort of (im)migration so prevalent in popular discourse over the last few years. Instead, he expands the topic to include spiritual questions, mythological concerns and more. With its relaxed atmosphere and soothing sounds, the record serves our grounded era even if its lyrics sometimes stand in contrast to its aural prettiness.

Over his 20 years recording, Ward has developed a recognizable aesthetic in his solo work, a throwback sound with some folk influences, a reasonable amount of reverb and some subtle noteworthy guitar playing. Migration Stories continues that line, and at times it feels as if Ward has merely produced more of the same, just with a theme to slap on it this time. For that reason, the disc works best when it finds more varied sounds. Members of Arcade Fire and producer Craig Silvey had some input in this one, and their influence pays off. “Unreal City” isn’t the record’s best track, but its synthy tonal shift keeps the album in motion. The cut fits into Ward’s sound enough that it’s not jolting, but it reminds us that Ward plans to take us somewhere.

When Ward stays grounded, that place often seems to be out West. He covers “Along the Sante Fe Trail,” made famous by Glenn Miller and later recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers. The song fits the album, with its casual lyrical complexity and gently moving tale of travel. It’s almost too nonchalant, though. When Ward stumbles, it’s in his seeming insouciance, an odd characteristic given how much attention to detail the recordings must actually have received. Opener “Migration of Souls,” for example, deliberately leaves plenty of room, using just a few words to convey a message. It simultaneously sounds lovely but feels like a sketch of something yet to arrive.

The album as a whole, fortunately, avoids that trap. As Ward moves from “Migration of Souls” to the dreamy “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer” to the retro-country “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show,” the album flows with enough diversity to keep the attitudinal chill from becoming soporific. The two instrumental tracks – interlude “Stevens’ Snow Man” and “Rio Drone” – add character to the disc, largely because hearing Ward’s joy in musical discovery translates well.

Along with all this shifting music, Ward delivers memorable imagery. “Torch,” another cut like “Unreal City” that ties into his indie rock connections, blends a few potential storylines in a handful of images that use careful shading to develop an unexpected optimism. As the last song before the outro, it’s an excellent way to end the album. Ward suggests that in our overcoming adversity, we might miss the new freedom presented to us on the victorious side of it. And with that note he slides into the clean guitar work of “Rio Drone,” wishing us not so much a “good night” as a confident “happy trails.”

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