John Wesley Harding has long been one of our most literary singer-songwriter types and a true cineaste. After all, he’s had two novels published under his given name, Wesley Stace, with a third on the way, plus his first two full-length releases were named after Frank Capra movies and his third after Capra’s autobiography.
Thus, it’d be easy to assume that this new album’s “Wild Boy”, with its talk of a jungle child crashing civilization, is a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation or to Francois Truffaut. However, when you consider that this is Harding’s first album in five years, the song’s “come and join the circus” chorus could just be Harding’s sly way of announcing his return to the music world big top. And who better to join Harding in the center ring than the Minus 5 (last seen backing kindred spirit Robyn Hitchcock), an outfit that’s to musical wit what Harding is to lyrical wit? The result is an exercise in well-planned and expertly delivered style-hopping.
“A Very Sorry Saint” and “Your Mind’s Playing Tricks On You” showcase Harding’s gentle melodic touch, while the pulsating “Sick Organism”, one of three songs co-written with Candy Butcher leader Mike Viola, is as close to joyous cacophony as Harding has ever wandered. “Someday Son” is Springsteen’s “My Hometown” from a different perspective, with a backbeat and GEAR-iges instead of garages. “Top Of The Bottom” is a talking-folk pseudo-memoir, with just enough truth morsels (despite its very-Britishness, “A businessman with a very young dolly bird/Talked through the set, liked what he thought he heard” rings realistic) to go along with the over-the-top details – unless, that is, Harding’s necrophilia arrest and his stepping in for Ted Neely in a Jesus Christ Superstar revival were under-reported.
Best of all is “The End”, which features a boundless list of things synonymous with finality (from “a coin on each eye” to “children chanting goodbye”) and an exclamation mark of a hook that’s visible from Jupiter. That song, of course, does not end the album; that’d be too predictable. If we’ve learned one thing from Harding’s wanderings – did you see Trad Arr Jones coming? – it’s that you should never try to anticipate his next move.