Joint Recording of November 1992: Why We Fight

Sire 45032-2 (CD only). Steve Berlin, prod.; Paul DuGre, Danny McGough, engs. AAD. TT: 53:38

I have seen the future of rock'n'roll, and it stinks. Why We Fight does not constitute The Next Big Thing, nor does it sound like Elvis Costello's next. John Wesley Harding is not the new Bob Dylan, but he is the next Wesley Harding Stace, one of those necessary artists we have been waiting for without knowing it, and Why We Fight is a necessary record.

Wes Stace, in his open-secret disguise of John Wesley Harding, is nothing if not a moral being. He sings, writes, and records in hopes of changing people's lives. As he says in the in-house interview Sire Records sent along with my promo copy of Why We Fight: "I remember how I used to play a Bob Dylan or John Prine album. I immersed myself in it for weeks, listening to the words. There wasn't a record I owned that I couldn't name all the tracks on, in order...So when people say my music is not for people with short attention spans, I say good. I like the fact that there are people out there who invest the same amount of energy in my records that I did with the music I love. To me that means I'm doing something right."

He's also having a terrific time. As on all of Harding's albums to date, on Why We Fight his sheer joy of singing and talking, biting through the multiple mechanical removes of the recording medium, is palpable. When was the last time you listened to someone who actually sounded as if he was having the time of his life? JWH always has; that alone would keep me coming back to his records.

In that same Sire interview, JWH also spoke of his role as a "protest singer." But with the release of this, his fourth album, he reveals himself as no more a traditional protest singer than Bob Dylan was with the release of his own fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. "I don't talk about specifics...I am far more interested in universal situations...All I think a protest singer should do is broach the subject and ask the right questions."

However reasonable, however understandable, on the surface this sounds all too familiar: we've been hearing something like it for the last 20 years or more as mainstream singer/songwriters avoid taking strong stands on specific issues, either singing generic platitudes and plaints, a solipsistic escape clause in every verse, or choosing targets so patently heinous that they risk disagreement with no one.

But that's not Harding's way either. He doesn't so much refrain from choosing sides as choose all sides at once, writing from within the issues of compassion, honor, integrity, and truth-telling. Though some of these songs are clearly dramatic monologues by a single voice, whether Harding's own or one assumed, in others he seems to speak from within the hearts of a number of characters at once or in turn, ducking into and out of their individualities, or various facets of his own character, balancing rootedness in the particular with the broader perspectives of the moral heights. Harding's questions, though almost invariably posed as the bewildered statements of characters reluctant to make any sort of statement at all, are no less questions for all that. He does not preach.

And that, along with so many other things, makes Why We Fight his best album, the one in which his confidence and skills finally match his enthusiasm and intensity, the one in which he is finally more artist than fan, in which his borrowings and homages to the folk tradition are finally fully absorbed into the voice of a master singer, composer, storyteller, film buff, and joker. I like this guy. How can you not like someone who, instead of his own boyish mug, puts a painting of Phil Ochs on the cover of his own best album? With such an embarrassment of his own riches, he can afford to be magnanimous.

As on all of JWH's albums, lines leap out left and further left. From "The Truth," a Kafkaesque tale of a dissenter lost in the bowels of a police state disguised as a modern media democracy: "I was arrested for disturbing the peace, but, hey, I was disturbing the war...It all made the news but the story was wrong, and the photo wasn't even of me." From "Into the Wind": "He threw his hopes into the wind / To see if they would pin on her again / He threw his heart against the wall / To see if it would stick or fall." From "Hitler's Tears": "He's the only man, most certainly / Who could claim to have learned from history / Hitler cries himself to sleep, alone in Brazil, no one calls / How must it feel to be the biggest loser of them all?" From "The Original Miss Jesus": "She was naked as a true apology / For something she hadn't yet done." From the blistering "Come Gather Round," which in four lines sums up the last 20 years of well-intentioned but lame, and ultimately co-opted, "countercultural" earnestness: "Come gather round and listen, or watch it on the screen / The campfire burnt out long ago, the songs all got obscene / And left us with some rich kids trying hard to be sincere / Let it fly straight out the other after going in one ear...Don't fall for the new maturity / It ain't real / They just call it 'integrity' / Please don't grow up / Please blow up your TV...We're so convinced we're different, it makes us all the same."

I find such simplicity, clarity, and straightforwardness breathtaking. Harding seems able to simply step out of the way of his own words and voice.

The musical, thematic, and moral axis around which this "experiment in folk noir" rotates is formed by two quite different songs. "Ordinary Weekend" is a gritty, bleak tale, told in tragic-ballad style, of the pointless end of an unexamined life. Our anti-hero, job lost, luck down, agrees to be the driver for a dozen criminals planning a heist, and ends up the only one identified by witnesses. When he shows up to collect his share, the other burglars stab him in the back and throw him in the lake. "I felt sick and stupid and damned my own brown hair / Forgetting that the price you pay must far exceed the share." Harding's delivery is electrifying, a headlong rush of chords and words.

In "Me Against Me," an instant classic, a very different "I" claims all of the personal responsibility denied by the waster of that extraordinary weekend: "And they say that it's them and it's us / And they say that it's you and it's me / But now I can see that it's me against me / Against me against me against me." This is the answer Harding finally delivers, the explanation promised in the album's title: We fight because we refuse to own our own lives and actions, constantly projecting internal strife on others, absolving ourselves of responsibility. The song, like the rest of the album, shows a psychological and social sophistication—unmatched since Dylan's "Only a Pawn in their Game"—even as its speaker(s) tell us how much they don't understand. As I said, he doesn't preach.

Though artists like Harding are never so powerful as when they're on stage with just a mike and a guitar, Why We Fight comes closest to that purest—and, in this case, truest—folk romance. (And if you haven't yet heard JWH's first album, the live, solo It Happened One Night, or, better yet, seen him in concert, believe me—you need to.) The music itself is richer, more melodic than it seems, or simpler than it sounds. Whatever, it flows more smoothly, with less effort and more effect, than on any previous JWH album. There is more air here than on any of his earlier albums—especially his last one, The Name Above the Title, on which producer Andy Paley's horns simply ate up all the space.

New producer Steve Berlin's vision is more that of an acoustic electric band: real-sounding drums, bass, acoustic rhythm guitar, carefully chosen percussion, and Greg Leisz's gritty, funky lead guitar alternating with his own pedal steel. It's all reminiscent of late Byrds, early Eagles, and the lean, loose pickup bands of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, sounding not at all dated or self-consciously referential, but sharing the freshness of those classic records.

By a large margin, Why We Fight is Harding's best, strongest, and most accessible album, which makes it one of the year's best, strongest, and most accessible. Expect to spend a lot of time with it—it demands a committed relationship.—Richard Lehnert