Late Style

Wesley Stace

(CD - Omnivore #OVCD 430)

Review by Mark Deming

There's a long, rich tradition of pop musicians re-inventing themselves, but Wesley Stace is a special case. Having spent decades writing and performing as cheeky indie-folk progenitor John Wesley Harding, he's chosen to remake himself into the artist he was before he took on his stage name. It turns out Wesley Stace and John Wesley Harding aren't so remarkably different, but Stace has a greater appreciation of nuance than his alter ego, and he's chosen to emphasize this on 2021's Late Style. Stace is still the lyricist on these 12 songs, but he's turned over the responsibility of writing and arranging the music to David Nagler, who'd previously worked with him as the musical director of the Cabinet of Wonders, the live variety show Stace has been presenting in New York City for several years. Late Style trades the folk-leaning pop (or pop-leaning folk) that has dominated Stace/Harding's catalog for a blend of cocktail lounge jazz, cool '60s-style bachelor pad pop, exotica lite, and vintage soundtrack music. The different musical backdrops give Late Style a sound and a mood that's very different from Stace's previous work, though he's also taken the opportunity to have fun playing with the balance of form and content. While his first two Wesley Stace albums -- 2013's Self-Titled and 2017's Wesley Stace's John Wesley Harding -- found him assuming a gentler and more mature lyrical tone, he's reclaimed his poison pen for Late Style, griping about the sorry state of the world ("Well Done Everyone"), certain odious politicians ("Come Back Yesterday"), the imagined horrors of life as an actor ("Hey! Director"), and even the demands an unfeeling audience has placed upon him as a professional musician ("How You All Work Me"). Admittedly, there are gentle moments (most notably the clever love song "All the Yous"), and the production and arrangements are splendid, especially Nagler's period-perfect keyboard parts and the harmony vocals from Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor, witty but effective and brilliantly executed. Randy Newman once told a journalist that on his albums, he was aiming for a nice sound with a really nasty intent, and that describes Late Style perfectly. It might be difficult for some listeners to adjust to the disconnect between the sweetness of the music and the bitter taste of Stace's lyrics and lead vocals, though there's no escaping the impressive craft of this album on either side of the divide. There's no question Stace and his collaborators did remarkable work on Late Style, but after a few spins you might still be wondering just what it is they were hoping to do.

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