John Wesley Harding: Anthem Of An Also-Ran

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Monday's Pick

  • Song: "Top of the Bottom"
  • Artist: John Wesley Harding
  • CD: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
  • Genre: Folk-Pop
John Wesley Harding 300

John Wesley Harding's "Top of the Bottom" tells a funny, self-deprecating story about the margins of pop music. Bill Wadman hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Wadman

In the early '90s, charming folk-pop troubadour John Wesley Harding looked like a star in the making. Finding a comfort zone between the wry absurdism of Robyn Hitchcock and the bold expressiveness of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello, the Englishman became both a college-radio staple and a budding icon, aided by good looks and a star's charisma.

It's not as if Harding ever really fell from grace: It just became clear, particularly to record labels, that he'd never get much bigger. So he just kept at it, churning out occasional albums for different labels, discovering a new life as an author (under his real name, Wesley Stace), and simply plugging away. It's a common trajectory in music: a brief flirtation with stardom, followed by a slow settling process and occasional bursts of acclaim.

All of which makes the wise and self-deprecating "Top of the Bottom" the highlight of Harding's excellent and surprisingly long-awaited new album, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Clever but not cloying, the song documents a pop singer's rise, rapid decline and resurrection to a more mundane new beginning.

Harding's own saga gets spiced up and fictionalized — "There were rumors about my sexuality / The video star, killed by reality" — as he blends playful digs at past managers with a reference to "an arrest for necrophilia." In all, though, "Top of the Bottom" tells a funny and gripping story about the margins of pop music, while providing a surprisingly convincing look at how and where dreams of stardom often end.

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This story originally ran on March 9, 2009.

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