Pop music, really great pop music, is hard. The popular illusion that anyone with a guitar and a passing acquaintance with the Beatles can pump out the odd, achingly sweet ditty is a myth, as patently untrue as those stories I've been spinning for the kids in my neighborhood about Bigfoot in my back yard.
Of course, John Wesley Harding isn't just anybody.
Like a Zen master of the big pop hook, Mr. Harding's career has been marked by an ability to spin sparkling songs seemingly out of thin air. On his new album, The Confessions of St. Ace, he shrugs off the folk mantle placed on him because of his recent work and returns to his rockier roots with a collection of songs that boast the soaring arrangements and clever wordplay that often led to Elvis Costello comparisons.
The Confessions of St. Ace derives much of its power from the musicians Mr. Harding surrounds himself with. Featuring appearances by Jimmie Dae Gilmore, Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows) and Steve Earle, who shares vocal duties with him on the weary country-esque lament Our Lady of the Highways, the album is as much about the company Mr. Harding keeps as his songwriting skill.
Beautiful arrangements, however, don't mean that The Confessions of St. Ace lacks something of a sardonic edge. Disguised as a love song, the wicked Goth Girl pokes holes in the excesses of Gothic rock subculture. His sharpest, wittiest writing, however, doesn't appear in his songs but in the extensive pseudo-concept liner notes accompanying the album.
Linking the seemingly unrelated songs together, the album is accompanied by a Harding-penned treatise on the fictional life and works of St. Ace. According to Mr. Harding, the "miracles" of the mythical saint included leaving an indelible "holy sign" in each and every diaper as an infant, speaking out against the idolatry of breakfast cereal and being martyred to save a rebelling flock of giant sheep.
Mocking the implied subtext in popular music, he describes each song as a small sampling of the St. Ace gospel, illuminating the reader as to the mythical gnostic's reflections on Greek mythology, Nine Inch Nails and U.S. geography. In an age where literate liner notes seem to be a lost art, it's refreshing to find an artist who embraces it as another creative outlet.
With his intelligent approach to album production, Mr. Harding has taken an important step toward reversing the damage inflicted on "pop" music by the legions of boy bands and teen divas, producing a work that is at once smart, beautiful and true to its roots.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.