John Wesley Harding Ditches the Nickname and Gets Reflective
The decision to release a record under his own name was not one that Wesley Stace made lightly. After making a name for himself in the music world playing under his Dylan-inspired pseudonym John Wesley Harding, the singer has branched out over last decade as a novelist, literary critic and musical curator, all under his given name. His multitude of creative outlets had considerably slowed his musical output until 2009’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and 2011’s The Sound of His Own Voice. Both of those John Wesley Harding releases featured a strong cast of musical collaborators and songs whose eclecticism bespoke his strengths as a writer.
Along with ditching his stage name, Stace has also taken a more person tone in his songwriting on the appropriately-named Self-Titled. The album has the feeling of a man, now firmly entrenched in middle age, allowing himself an evening of nostalgia while looking wistfully through his old little black book. With the exception of a tender rumination on the death of a friend in “The Bedroom You Grew Up In”, and the musical name-checking “Pieces of the Past”, Self-Titled is devoted to songs about falling into and (more often) out of love with old flames.
Fortunately Stace’s adeptness as a songwriter and storyteller allows him to avoid descending into the kind of self-pity, unattractive spite or moroseness that often derails singer-songwriter breakup records. Just as on his previous two records, the strongest moments on Self-Titled reflect his literary talents and read like stories. Songs like “Goodbye Jane” and “We Will Always Have New York” use just enough details from his past to create an aura of sadness that’s so sweet melancholic that it ends up feeling almost uplifting. Stace always approaches his own memories of heartbreak with so much well-adjusted calm that there’s almost as much hopefulness in his tale of first love “A Canterbury Kiss” as there is in the meditative end-of-the-line lament “Letting Go”.
Unfortunately, with only a couple of exceptions, Self-Titled is an emotionally monochromatic listen, as Stace’s remembrances and lessons learned eventually starting to blend together. The sameness also extends the music, which is, almost to a fault, understated acoustic folk-pop, accented with mournful strings. There’s nothing wrong with sonic or thematic consistency but every writer knows that it’s better to err on the side of brevity than risk repetitive tedium. During the album’s somewhat soggy middle, songs like “Lydia”, “Wrong for the Part”, and “Excalibur” blur together with their middling tempos and themes. More disappointing are the intentional curveballs. While the wah-wah guitar and heavy-handed carpe diem message of “Only Thing Missing” is merely unremarkable, things get truly awkward on the imagined travelogue “Ride Your Camel”. In the midst of an album about aging and hard-earned wisdom it’s hard not to cringe hearing an Englishman rhyming “Cairo” with “gyro”.
Two of the songs on Self-Titled were co-written by Stace with Eleanor Friedberger, who released different versions on her album Personal Record. The contrast between the two artists is instructive. Friedberger tackles both songs with a youthful joie de vivre and flirty suggestiveness that makes them irresistible nuggets of windows-down indie-pop. Stace’s versions, meanwhile, show their singer’s age and transform the songs from bouncy tales of “adventures in single life” to weighty life-lessons and last-chances. While Friedberger can lightheartedly toss off a line like “I’m far from the town, in the suburbs of your pleasure, I’ve been in exile so long,” hearing Stace’s delivery is nearly enough to bring you to your knees.
Pop records about aging and mortality are always a tough sell. After all, for many music is a young person’s game, an escape. But though it could use some light editing, Self-Titled has a lot to offer for those willing to hang with it till the end. Stace’s eye for sharp detail and emotional intelligence help soften the edges of life’s inevitabilities that he’s singing about, as does the album’s warm, supple production which seems to cradle every note and syllable. Like meeting an old friend on late autumn evening, Self-Titled offers comfort and camaraderie in the face of the oncoming chill.
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