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Album review: John Wesley Harding's 'Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead'*

March 9, 2009 |  5:51 pm

Harding240 It’s been flung as a pejorative at bands that overuse literary flourishes — let’s all look askance at the Decemberists — but John Wesley Harding plumbs bookshop rock like no other. If “Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead” isn’t a mash note to the hungry readers savoring David Foster Wallace’s posthumous New Yorker piece, then the Lannan Foundation needs to start giving grants to musicians.

In the books world, neo-folkie John Wesley Harding is known as author Wesley Stace, whose novel, "Misfortune," was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. On "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead," his 10th record and first since 2004 -- when he broke to write "Misfortune" and "by George" -- Harding continues to dispatch a novelist's battalion of crisp metaphors, poetic digressions and screwball characters.

His band, the Minus Five, with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, keeps the proceedings grounded in plucky folk-rock formalism.

All of Harding's rich tapestries are admirably high-concept. "Sleepy People," his gentle reproach to late risers, is hinged on a drowsy suite of strings, the softest pillow to deliver his envy. "A Very Sorry Saint" is the lustful, restless admission of a sanctified soul, which runs a tad precious. Sometimes it feels less hammy when Harding forgoes prose's directness for evocative poetry, like his juxtaposed images of skyscrapers and Atlantis on "Love or Nothing."

Harding sings "I was afraid of the dark/As I got older, I learned to put it into quotation marks," which could double as a self-critique. "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead" is hyper-aware, expertly tweaking the lyricist's game at every turn, but it occasionally sacrifices authentic exploration.

--Margaret Wappler

John Wesley Harding
"Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead"
Popover Corps Records
Three stars

UPDATE: The original version of this review stated that "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead" is Harding's first album since 1994.  That is incorrect; it's his first since "Adam's Apple" in 2004.