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John Wesley Harding: Anthem Of An Also-Ran

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)