In 2000, Wesley Stace, under his stage name John Wesley Harding, released the eponymously-punning Confessions of St. Ace, complete with ersatz hagiography and iconography and at least one patently autobiographical song (“Our Lady of the Highways”). His brand new release, Self-Titled (Yep Roc), the first to be released under his real name, offers 16 songs stripped of the knowing winks of his previous persona and facing his past head on. As he sings on “Lydia”:You think all I do is write songs
And that isn’t wrong
But I’m not afraid of the truth…
…even as that truth recounts the ugly wake of their failed relationship.[i]
Stace’s embrace of his given name for his music is no small thing and has been coming for a while. Since 2005, he has published three very well received novels (Misfortune, By George, and Charles Jessold Considered as a Murderer) with a fourth (Wonderkid) due out in Spring 2014, and he contributes reviews and commentary to the Times Literary Supplement and The Wall Street Journal. At first, his publishers had hoped to capitalize on his musical following with novels under the JWH brand, but Stace demanded they be published with his real name. On Self-Titled, he officially claims his entire creative output and drives the point home with reference to “Mr. Stace” in two different songs.
According to the singer at the opening concert of the Self-Titled Tour with The English UK, at Northampton’s Parlor Room this past Saturday, all the songs are true. That said, the opening track, “The Dealer’s Daughter,” ends at his own grave, so it’s hard not to read this as a metaphorical shedding of his Dylan-inspired persona to pave the way for the old girlfriend songs that follow (e.g., “When I Knew,” “Goodbye Jane,” “We Will Always Have New York,” “A Canterbury Kiss,” and “Lydia”).[ii] The opening also prepares listeners for a second death, that of a close childhood friend, in “The Bedroom You Grew Up In,” the penultimate song. In between Stace reflects on his life (current and past) and delivers some of the most moving songs of his long and varied career.
Gone essentially are the type of songs from throughout his career built primarily upon literary or musical allusions (e.g., “Roy Orbison Knows,” “Cathy’s New Clown,” “Spaced Cowboy,” “Cupid and Psycho,” “Oh! Pandora,” and “My Favorite Angel”). And while specific music and musicians are mentioned throughout, they are rooted in the relationships he’s recounting.[iii] As he celebrates on “Pieces of the Past:”
I am just the sum of the books that I have readand
I am just the sum of the records I have heard
All he’s learned is still here, but he’s processing it differently now. And the results, once “too long [and] too strong,” are now shorter and emotionally charged.For example, Stace’s musical and sexual education takes center-stage in the sweetly nostalgic “A Canterbury Kiss,” in which a very hip young lady back in school introduces the young Wes to Television, Talking Heads, and Hendrix, among others, and rewards his newfound knowledge (or at least his willingness to feign knowledge) with the titular kiss.[iv]
Despite the major shift in his approach, however, language, images and motifs of Stace’s earlier work return in these autobiographical songs: his “not mak[ing] another sound” toward the end of “We Will Always Have New York,” for instance, recalls the heroine of “She Never Talks” from Adam’s Apple (2004). His use of theatrical images, which he had tapped previously in, “The Governess,” “Why Must the Show Must Go On,” and “Hey, Director!” make an appearance here in “Wrong for the Part.” His experiments in gothic atmosphere[v] – as seen in his “Sussex Ghost Story,” “The Fall of the House of Harding,” and “The Examiners” – here eerily has him peering into his own house, spying on his wife and children, and seeing that he is “The Only Thing Missing.” And, as the songwriter himself admitted during his Northampton concert, he’s always loved being “wrong”: “Wrong about Everything” and “Wrong Goodbye” are joined here by the aforementioned “Wrong for the Part” and “The Wrong Tree.” But, as they say, and in the very best of ways, everything old is new again.
Two of the songs that appear on Self-Titled, “Stare at the Sun” and “When I Knew,” were co-written with Eleanor Friedberger and were released on her Personal Record from earlier in 2013. Both of Stace’s versions take a different tack from his collaborator. Friedberger’s “Stare at the Sun,” for example, is a summer anthem (indeed what I thought, with its emphatic guitars and drums, should have been THE summer single of 2013), here is a quiet piano reflection on loss: his being “in the suburbs of your pleasure…in exile so long.” (Is it just me, or can only Wes Stace make such a turn of phrase, a decidedly 17th-century conceit at that, actually work in a 21st-century pop song?)[vi]
Happily, not all the songs involve diving into the wreckage of failed relationships. “Ride Your Camel,” for example, captures the none-too-subtle motion of sex AND offers the sly rhyming of “Giza,” “squeeze-a,” and “Julius Caesar.” And in “The Wrong Tree” Stace compares himself to a squirrel-happy dog raising its leg. Confessional? Yes. Taking himself too seriously? Never.
In his most recent novel, Charles Jessold Considered as a Murderer, the music-critic-narrator describes the three different periods in an artist’s career (early, middle, and late). The last, the "mature" phase, is a:
reconciliation of clearly conflicting aesthetics, a full synthesis of early and middle styles, as though the two have reached a détente and the composer is mature enough to admit it (270).
Self-Titled clearly marks a new phase for Mr. Stace, and, if, perchance, it is the start of Wesley Stace’s mature phase, here’s hoping it’s the beginning of a long and productive one. For his audience will only be the richer for it.
[i] Back in 1992, on Why We Fight, John Wesley Harding asked this musical question about “The Truth”: “Where do fact and fiction separate?”
[ii] Aptly, on his first confessional album, Confessions of St. Ace, there is a song entitled “Old Girlfriends.”
[iii] The only song on Self-Titled that approximates his earlier allusion-driven tracks is “Excalibur,” a fairly straightforward treatment of Arthur’s legendary sword. The anomaly is solved by Stace’s explanation that he wrote the song for Robin Gibb as though it were a BeeGees song from their greatest album, Odessa (1969). (And Stace is correct, btw: Odessa is their masterpiece.)
[iv] Stace also treats this period of his life in a very entertaining essay, “Achilles’ Heel,” in Yes is the Answer (And Other Prog Rock Tales), edited by Marc Weingarten, et al.(Rare Bird Books, 2013).
[v]Stace wrote the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Charles Dickens’ The Haunted House, published in 2004.
[vi] His ability to make “older” language work for a contemporary audience was proven by the great enjoyment that his neo-Victorian novel, Misfortune, gave my class at CCSU in the Spring of 2013. They LOVED it.