Any review or article about Wesley Stace requires some exposition. The singer-songwriter began releasing albums under the moniker John Wesley Harding back in 1988. He has essentially stayed in the lanes of either witty indie-folk (It Happened One Night, John Wesley Harding’s New Deal) or invigorating power-pop (Here Comes the Groom, Awake). Somewhere along the line, he found time to write four critically acclaimed novels, went back to his given name, began hosting and curating the well-received Cabinet of Wonders (a “portable variety show”, as described in his press materials), and wrote the libretto for Errollyn Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, which premiered at London’s Barbican this past July.
That kind of artistic eclecticism is enough for two or three careers, easily (and that’s without mentioning his teaching gigs at Princeton and Swarthmore and his freelance writing for the Wall Street Journal). But with his new album, Late Style, Stace was determined to make an album with a different kind of sound, in a different way. Writing the lyrics himself, he enlisted his Cabinet of Wonders musical director, David Nagler, to write the music. Essentially, Stace’s Bernie Taupin found his Elton John. While he’s certainly no slouch as a writer of melodies, Stace felt that Nagler’s talents would greatly suit the musical mood he was seeking. The result is something much jazzier and more exotic than anything he’s released before.
As Stace explains, the idea was “to find a new way to crack the egg of ‘gentleman-songwriter with lots of lyrics’, most particularly in a way that suited my voice, which has never quite provided the cut glass that rock requires, but that more accurately reflected what I actually listen to for pleasure on the kitchen stereo while I’m cooking, where you’re very unlikely (with no offense to those great songwriters) to hear Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, etc.” The warm, late-night feel of the album even extends to the merch: deluxe versions of the album include exclusive lowball glasses, coasters, and cocktail napkins with a unique drink recipe printed on them.
With Late Style, Stace figured out how to combine his vast lyrical wit with engaging, timeless arrangements that break out of the somewhat stifling (but still entertaining) folk trappings of his previous work. With Nagler by his side, Stace has cracked the code, resulting in his best album since 2000’s The Confessions of St. Ace. Late Style isn’t just an album; it’s a vibe. The evidence presents itself within the opening notes of the first song, “Where the Bands Are”, as Prairie Prince’s drums and Nagler’s piano provide a hip-shaking, Latin-tinged late-night bar atmosphere. Stace’s vocals glide effortlessly into the arrangement, and his lyrics are typically full of clever references and vivid imagery. “And it’s like an apartment / Much nicer than yours,” he sings. “And the bathroom graffiti’s by George Bernard Shaw.” Once Danny Cao’s delightfully bright, jazzy trumpet solo makes an appearance, you know you’re not in for the usual John Wesley Harding experience.
With “Everything All the Time”, Stace and Nagler push the Latin vibe even further, with Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor’s cooing backup vocals conjuring up a legitimate Sergio Mendes feel. But the folky nature of Stace’s previous albums still peeks out from time to time: even with the brushed drums and jazzy vibraphone, “Hey! Director”, complete with Stace’s hushed vocal delivery, sounds a lot like the low-key sound he played with on his 1992 album Why We Fight. In other words, Stace isn’t awkwardly shoehorning a new genre into his old sound, but rather he’s found a way to make them peacefully coexist.
The Latin sound isn’t really all Stace experiments with on Late Style. With “The California Fix”, he works within a light ‘60s pop framework as a lazy shuffle beat, and backup vocalists accompany his cultural reference-stuffed Golden State tale. “We ate at Bob’s Big Boy the night I arrived,” he sings. “Checked into a motel, straight off the plane / Never went home again.” The song almost sounds like it could’ve been made into a movie starring Elliott Gould in 1972. “Well Done Everyone” has an almost comically upbeat feel, paired with Randy Newman-esque lyrics that gleefully chronicle our planet’s destruction. “We let superstition control policy / We thought a madman might be fun / Well done, everyone.”
Stace’s albums are always an embarrassment of riches, full of sharp, often hilarious words combined with sophisticated melodies. Late Style is a natural next step in his discography, an album that seems like it might not work if you hear it described in conversation but ultimately sounds warm and deeply engaging once the needle drops. “I feel that the world requires a little beauty and finesse from artists at this moment,” Stace explains, “particularly as we emerge from a time of scruffy zoom concerts. We all need a little elegance.” Pass the drinks and cue the music.