When John Wesley Harding arrived on the music scene in 1990, he probably expected to be called the New Dylan. After all, every singer-songwriter who followed in Dylan’s wake got that treatment. Harding even wrote a song for his debut album in which he preemptively declared, “Bob Dylan is my father / Joan Baez is my mother / And I am their bastard son.” So, it must have been disappointing when, instead, he was declared the New Elvis Costello. On the surface, the comparison makes sense: like Costello, Harding is identifiably British, undeniably clever, and uses a lot of multi-syllabic words. On one of his albums, he even employed two-thirds of Costello’s backing band, the Attractions. But there is also a key difference between the two: where Costello’s early songs were self-described tales of “revenge and guilt”, Harding’s are generally more playful than anguished. Where Costello was out for blood, Harding seemed mostly interested in drawing laughs. Indeed, the past master he has the most in common with is Loudon Wainwright III, who also reports on the world in a skewed and witty, but essentially benign, way.
Harding’s new album, The Sound of His Own Voice is yet another smorgasbord of flavorful musical dishes, but befitting his age — at 45 he’s no longer the new anything — the best tracks are flavored with a pinch of nostalgia and a dash of regret. Neither of these ingredients, however, are present on the lead-off track, “Sing Your Own Song”, a simplistic paean to the simplicity of songwriting, sprinkled with a few flakes of paternal pride. Indeed, the recipe he provides is just about as flavorless as the song’s bouncy, banal tune: “You can write your own words / You can sing your own song / And it doesn’t really matter if you’re out of tune / Or if no one sings along / Cos if you do what you like / And you like what to do / Then someone somewhere knows you’re there / And the world may come to you / When you sing your own song.” It’s the pop music equivalent of fast food for the kids, I suppose.
Each of the dozen tracks that follow has much more to recommend it. In “I Should Have Stopped”, the narrator sees an old childhood flame at the laundromat, but walks on rather than saying hello, “Because it’s ancient history and we are not the same / And we will never know the mystery again.” Here and elsewhere, Harding expertly captures both the wistfulness of old memories and the ambivalence of middle age refection. On “Uncle Dad”, he deals with the complications of divorce, from a child’s point of view, with an equally light touch, seeing both the absurdity and the poignancy that result: “I remember once when he came in for a drink / And he was there in the morning / Sitting in the kitchen with a mug of instant coffee / Yawning / Mum was smiling when we went to school / Later she was in mourning.” Such precise insights are rare in a three-minute song, but Harding (who also has three novels to his credit under his real name, Wesley Stace) delivers such little gems throughout the album.
Then there is “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)”, a piece of social satire that borders on genius, as Harding skewers our disposable culture but also reminds us that, no matter how superficial or artificial we make our world, we can’t escape our emotions: “There’s a chain store where mom and pop once prospered / They’re divorced now and they live in penury / Kids grown up and moved away / I hear that happens anyway / There’s a Starbucks where they live, I guarantee / There’s a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be / There’s a hard luck story everywhere you look / But oh the glory! / There’s a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be.”
Towards the end of the album, Harding even manages to sneak in a song, “Good News (& Bad News)”, that has no laughs at all, just a sad, melancholy reflection about the communication breakdown at the end of a relationship. It’s another perfect little gem on an album that confirms, once again, that Harding is not the new anyone else, but a uniquely gifted singer-songwriter in his own right.