This is it. This is the single point in time when we as a collective society are all simultaneously in need of any and all positive modes of escapism. “Migration Stories” is the album that can provide the porch-sitting, bedroom dwelling type of variety.
For anyone familiar with alternative royalty M. Ward — also recognizable as the counterpart to Zooey Deschanel in their musical duo She & Him — this 10th studio album is a familiar trek filled with acoustic guitar arrangements and folky lyrics crooned with reverbed vocals. “Migration of Souls” begins the LP with a sweet, acoustic serenade whose lyrics evoke the titular theme of this album — the legacy of mankind's perpetual movement and migration in search of a place to reconcile with loved ones. Of course, to fully appreciate Ward’s intentions with the lyrics and his closeness to the theme of this album, it’s worth knowing that Ward’s own grandfather immigrated to Southern California from Mexico before having Ward’s mother.
In close accompaniment, Ward grounds the sound of this album in comfortability with “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer” and “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show.” Both tracks rely on drawn out vocals and slow electric guitar picking to create a folkish twang that feels suitable for backdropping a lone traveler in a western — appropriately in conjunction with the album’s expressive scenes of human migration.
To be fair, sprinkled across the album are a few songs that incorporate synthetic beats and textures that extend Ward beyond his usual sound. The dreamy “Real Silence” and the more lively “Torch” contribute to the celestial impressions that coat the LP. These sounds, mixed with folk-western guitar, produce an air of journeying through time and space, looking back at human history and looking forward with hope.
The keyboard and synths of “Independent Man” and “Unreal City” — a love ballad for Los Angeles and by far the most upbeat track on the LP — are probably the clearest markers of the collaborative effort put into this album by instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury of Arcade Fire and mixer/producers Craig Silvey and Teddy Impakt. Whether this was intentional or not, the two countering refrains of “Unreal City” — “I saw the big one strike” and “the big one sleeps tonight” — are a timely evocation of how humans mentally compartmentalize supposedly far-off catastrophes. Referencing the fearfully anticipated San Andreas earthquake, Ward sings of the only true option that people have even when they are confronted with mortality — to make peace with it and keep on living.
While “Migration Stories” is not a stylistic revelation, Ward flexes his strong, often attention-grabbing lyricism and talent in composing contemporary folk ballads. Perhaps suitingly, Ward softly closes the album with the instrumental “Rio Drone” — a sleepier variation of the album’s interlude track “Stevens’ Snow Man” — that is the musical embodiment of a sunset. As we are confined to our homes and sequestered from familiar faces, “Migration Stories” is an ideal meditative escape into generational endurance and love.