Equal parts rock memoir and cautionary tale, M. Ward's ninth outing, What a Wonderful Industry, arrived out of the blue as a surprise release in June 2018. Forgoing his long-held roster position at Merge Records, the Portland-based songwriter issued the album himself, pairing his affinity for arcane American roots traditions with colorful stories from his two decades operating in various branches of the music industry. Ward's laconic delivery and retro-minded Americana have always been presented with a twinkle of dry wit, but not unlike its unannounced delivery, a self-released concept album calling out what he refers to as the "heroes and villains in equal measure" encountered during his career comes as a bit of a surprise. While his records often come across as a little loose and hairy, What a Wonderful Industry has a particularly homespun feel to it with an emphasis on springy acoustic 12-string riffs and rattling rhythms disguising what are in reality some of his craftiest songs to date. There's a bit of jangling mayhem -- bordering almost on menace -- to tracks like "Bobby" and "Miracle Man," while the brooding "Shark" wears its darkness in a subtler shade. The nifty little guitar intervals on "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" help lend an air of dreamy sophistication to its cutting lyrics. Along with the excellent "Motorcycle Ride," it's also one of the album's sweetest pop gems. Writing about past foes and benefactors seems to have injected some fire into Ward's approach, which had arguably settled into a pretty familiar laid-back groove. Musically, What a Wonderful Industry slots neatly into his canon, but its added focus on personal history gives it a distinctive flavor.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger