We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

John Wesley Harding isn’t nearly as insufferable as you’d expect an artist who copped his stage name from a Bob Dylan album to be. In fact, the English neofolkie, now based in San Francisco, is more often compared to Elvis Costello. The resemblance is slight—though the typewriter clickings that open John Wesley Harding’s New Deal do bring to mind Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book.” Deal, Harding’s fifth full-length CD, is rife with literary imagery. (Apparently for good reason: The singer/songwriter includes “finishing a novel instead of starting another one” in a press kit list of “Five Things I Could Have Been Doing Instead of Making This Album.”) But a songwriter must do more than refrain from rhyming “rain” and “pain” to earn the appellation “literate.” In Harding’s unobtrusively philosophical songs, the personal and the cosmological are often interwoven. On the plaintive “God Lives Upstairs,” for instance, a man who lives on the second floor of a three-story house is likened to humans lodged between heaven and hell. (The folks downstairs party too loud; the quiet guy upstairs “never even picks up all his mail—who knows where it goes?”) On “Infinite Combinations,” the alphabet becomes a disarmingly simple metaphor for life. Both songs, like most of those on Deal, are as somber as they are prettily melodic. The disc’s two delightful exceptions, “The King Is Dead Boring” and “Kiss Me, Miss Liberty,” evince Harding’s underrepresented capacity for uptempo exuberance. Deal is an accomplishment in more ways than one; after splitting unamicably from Sire, Harding opted to finance the recording of this album himself, shopping it around only after it was completed. Fortunately for him—and us—he found a taker.

—Nicole Arthur