John Wesley Harding | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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John Wesley Harding

In his half-dozen previous records, John Wesley Harding has compiled one of the strangest and most beguiling oeuvres in modern rock. He's capable of writing blistering love songs, blistering songs of protest, even offering a campy cover of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." The Confessions of St. Ace is full of the edgy pop fans have come to expect from Harding, along with the requisite surprises.

Chief among these is sure to be "Our Lady of the Highways," a weepy countrified ballad in which Harding trades refrains with none other than Nashville renegade Steve Earle. The pairing sounds curious at first -- Earle's whiskey-and-gravel baritone set against Harding's earnest Brit crooning -- but gradually grows pleasing to the ear. It's downright refreshing to hear the plink of a mandolin and the lament of a steel guitar backing a pop ensemble.

Harding is at his best when he's able to meld his mordant sensibility with his knack for traditional songwriting. Witness "Humble Bee," a joyous slice of Beatlesque rock, or the melodious electrified swirl of "Bad Dream Baby." Wesley has long been compared to his countryman Elvis Costello, and for good reason. Both have a winning weakness for blue-eyed soul. "I'm Wrong About Everything" features joyous snatches of organ, along with rousing gospel backup singers. "People Love to Watch You Die" sets Harding's wicked lyrical barbs to a song line worthy of Burt Bacharach.

There are moments on The Confessions where Harding's cheek gets the best of him. Cuts such as "Goth Girl" seem driven more by attitude than by musicianship. But romantic ruin is the order of the day here, and there's no denying that Harding -- for all his acerbic pretensions -- is a master popsmith. His strongest ballads ("You in Spite of Yourself," "Old Girlfriends," or "After the Fact") genuinely hook the listener with catchy riffs and sing-along choruses. The Confessions of St. Ace is proof positive that beneath every snarky cynic is a sweetly broken heart.

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