Review: M. Ward Masterfully Puts a Face on Immigration with ‘Migration Stories’


M. Ward describes his album Migration Stories as “11 largely instrumental ballads – a sci-fi fast forward to a more silent night many generations from here to a maybe-era where movement is free again.”

Ward’s vocals sound particularly world weary throughout, like a man that’s grown tired of seeing others – migrants? – struggling so. He doesn’t, however, come off as angry, like for example somebody protesting U.S. immigration policies (about which some have voiced their displeasure of late). Instead, he’s a storyteller, relaying various and diverse travel tales. 

Ward’s perspective takes an especially spiritual tone, however, on “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer,” where glimpses of heaven are spied through holes in the sky. Sonically, Ward has always mined vintage styles and sounds, and “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show” finds the singer/guitarist creating a lovely jukebox country song. It sways lightly, while Ward adds tasty and twangy electric guitar fills. 

The album was tracked in Quebec, with help from Tim Kingsbury and Richard Reed Parry (each of Arcade Fire), and many tracks – such as “Independent Man” – also include jazzy saxophone coloring their mixes. “Unreal City” is one of the few places where the music is rhythmic and – dare we say it? – joyful.

Perhaps, its lyric is describing that utopian sci-fi metropolis Ward imagines, where movement is truly uninhibited. In addition to its sprightly groove, the track also features sweetened backing vocals. It is, in a word, sugary. This dessert-y treat is followed by “Real Silence,” which features a uniquely synth-augmented orchestration. “Along the Santa Fe Trail” is like a modern singing cowboy song, which describes night travels along that famed pathway. 

Immigration is a hot button issue these days, filled with stories of border walls, cages and racial tension. Migration Stories, however, is not an album pressing that button. Instead, M. Ward puts a human face to those who are setting out on life-altering journeys. It’s reflective, rather than reactive, and features a master musician creating focused music from the heart.