Before he was sidelined by aspirations to become a full-time folk singer, John Wesley Harding was earmarked for pre-alt-rock stardom in the modern rock arena. He was witty, charming, and positively poppy on his marvelous 1989 debut EP God Made Me Do It -- The Christmas EP
. The full-length follow-up, Here Comes the Groom
, was nearly as good. A consummate singer-songwriter, Harding always preferred to tell his stories with as little clutter as possible. It wasn't much of a surprise that he tired of the pop detour a few albums later and spent the remainder of the '90s chasing his folk muse. On The Confessions of St. Ace
, his first pop album in seven years, Harding dives back in with a zest not present since his formative recordings a decade ago. There are some kinks here (as to be expected from a guy who's spent the past several years playing the people's troubadour), but his gift for melody -- something shoved aside during his folk years -- rings through on most of the album.
At its best moments, The Confessions of St. Ace is Harding's most rock-oriented album. Recorded in Nashville, but retaining only that city's patented gloss, it steers its way among the backstreets of '60s pop, '70s muscle rock, and '80s jangly college rock. A duet with Steve Earle and a cameo from Jimmie Dale Gilmore add to the album's charm, but it's Harding's return to pop songwriting that delivers the goods. "She's a Piece of Work" and "I'm Wrong About Everything" (which was featured in the pop music-obsessed High Fidelity) are subtle and smart songs -- maybe not so overjoyed as their God Made Me Do It counterparts, but sharp nonetheless. The album's excess polish and a few bumpy tracks give The Confessions of St. Ace an unnecessary bulk, but it's nice having Harding back making pop records.