Wesley Stace was born in Hastings in England in 1965, named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He was a successful student, attending Cambridge, where he received a First in English Literature. He also developed a passion for music, teaching himself guitar to the songs of John Prine and Bob Dylan and eventually writing his own songs. He abandoned academia for music in 1988 and caught the attention of Demon Records. Taking inspiration from Dylan’s classic album, he renamed himself John Wesley Harding.
Because his witty live shows had landed him the recording deal, the label took the unusual step of releasing a live disc as his debut. The follow-up was the sublime Here Comes the Groom, which showed off his clever lyrics, clear sense of musical history, and diverse talents in pop and folk. Unfortunately, a vague vocal similarity to Elvis Costello and backup work from two of the Attractions led to comparisons that have dogged him throughout his career. After another solid folk-pop outing with The Name Above the Title, Wes (as his fans know him) changed producers and recorded his most solid offering, Why We Fight.
While not literally a concept album, the twelve tracks all reflect on the many kinds of conflict that occur in modern life. Building on his solid folk roots, Wes crafted a set of wonderful story songs that show off some of his finest lyrics, tunes, and vocals.
Kill the Messenger sets the tone perfectly. A bitter tale based on the old adage, it features some fine playing backing up an ironic story with a sting in its tail. Ordinary Weekend is an even darker story, telling of a desperate fellow falling in with bad company and paying the price. The moral at the end of the song is especially poignant given the narrator’s fate. Closing out the initial trio is the haunting The Truth, an ode to political protest in an era of sensationalist media with short-term memories. It’s one of his finest moments on record and features a beautifully fragile vocal. (His shock at hearing the voice of God sound like Richard Gere is just icing on the lyrical cake.)
Dead Centre of Town takes the modern malaise in another direction, noting how urban decay and suburban flight have eroded our sense of community. It features some nice wordplay and picks up the pace a bit, driving the music forward compellingly. Into the Wind is a sad tale of self-defeat and bad choices, more sombre than snarky but equally effective. Hitler’s Tears, on the other hand, is an amazing tongue-in-cheek look at our demons and their potential humanity. Get Back Down is an energetic take-down of the self-important, a nice bit of sequencing that shows how good production can enhance even inherently strong material.
The album’s centerpiece is Me Against Me, a brilliant reflection on one of the saddest conflicts one can wage. In lesser hands, the song would be maudlin, but Wes manages to make these dark ponderings rich and human. With deft instrumentation and a quietly powerful vocal, it’s another highlight in his career overall. The Original Miss Jesus is a lighter number, an off-beat love song with fantastic wordplay and some nice reflections on the power of history. Where the Bodies Are is a prescient precursor to the whole CSI phenomenon, a biting look at forensics and humanity. This trio of songs is the powerhouse set of the album, demonstrating Wes’ strengths as a singer, lyricist, and musician with three diverse, stunning performances.
Millionaire’s Dream is a lushly sad ballad, a nice transition from the prior three songs into the album’s rousing closer. Come Gather Round is an ode to our shared humanity, a great sing-along in the folk tradition that encourages us to work together despite the conflicts rather than succumb to them. It’s a perfect closer that gives us a very different messenger than the ill-fated subject of the opening track. With this brilliant sequencing, strong performances all around, and a cohesive set of songs that shows off his experience and talent, John Wesley Harding turns in the strongest set in a solid career.
FURTHER LISTENING: Wes hasn’t made a bad album. Most of his discs show off a nice mix of charming pop and smart folk. The standouts are Here Comes the Groom, almost as strong as Why We Fight but a bit sprawling, and John Wesley Harding’s New Deal, his first in a series of one-off record deals that allowed him to pursue his diverse musical interests with less label interference. Trad Arr Jones is a wonderful set of traditional folk songs as arranged by the brilliant Nic Jones, a nice musical departure that shows off Wes’ sense of history. In recent years, he has also pursued a writing career as Wesley Stace, with three great novels so far. His latest musical offering is also under his birth name, reflecting its semi-autobiographical nature; it’s a solid song cycle that proves diversifying his talent hasn’t diluted it.