Matt Ward – who has previously released an EP as Matt J Ward & the Rising Sons – has lived and worked in outback and regional South Australia, as well as Texas. He has seen and experienced life on the land, and that long perspective informs the structure and substance of his debut album, Heartland. The album opens with an introduction of the last song, ‘Now That You Have My Heart’, but the first full song is ‘Better Man’, which is about life on the land – specifically, the weariness of the protagonist yet also his resilience. It’s an interesting decision to open an album with this track because it might seem to set a tone – yet it also leaves room for hope and happiness to develop across the course of the album, and Ward explores a range of human emotions an experiences over these ten tracks. There’s a clue in the title as well: throughout this album, trying to be a better man is a theme, although not always overtly stated. And it’s this which leads to a realisation of the album’s deeper theme: the everyday courage of trying to do your best, be your best, to others as well as yourself, when circumstances don’t always align in your favour. There is loss and heartbreak – not necessarily of the romantic kind – on this album and at every turn there is also a protagonist trying to be better even if he knows he won’t always succeed.
Ward has a voice that sounds lived in, not because it’s worn out but because he is singing with that ingredient key to Australian country music: authenticity. We believe what he’s singing about because his voice tells us that it’s coming from an authentic place – if not from his own experience, then from things he’s observed and considered. Musically his influences seem to come modern Americana as much as they do from Slim Dusty, and what’s in common there is structure and purpose: tell the story straight and don’t muck the audience around. These are the elements that make it possible to envisage these songs being played to strangers in a dusty outback pub as much as it is to a crowded bar in inner-city Melbourne. When songs are as well constructed as these, they can travel.
Heartland was produced by Matt Fell, who is responsible for many a fine Australia country production – and it features backing vocals from artists such as Katie Brianna and Brielle Davis. ‘Washed Up’ shares lead vocals with American artist Bonnie Montgomery, who is a great match for Ward. The album will certainly please those who love their traditional country music as well as those who may not know their country music history but recognise wonderful songs when they hear them.
Heartland is out now.