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Wesley Wolfe's Numbskull

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On 2010's Storage, the Carrboro singer-songwriter Wesley Wolfe was quick to confess his existential malingering: "Everyday we choose coffee over suicide," he sang at the start of the record's second song, his strangely cheery tone buoyed by a spry beat. "So far so good/Run and hide to stay and fight."

Storage represented Wolfe's return to recording after a six-year break, and its fatalistic gambit established the approach he's taken as a songwriter ever since: Try to find a sweet spot somewhere in this world of trouble, a point of comfort that allows a person to withstand evil acts and inevitable disappointments, and stay there. That feeling laced through the follow-up, Cynics Need Love Too, like a parasitic vine that refused to wither. For Wolfe, even sleep seemed a hard-fought victory, vacations only a spotlight of back-at-home miseries. But Wolfe has never balanced despair and delight as well as he does on the new and magnetic Numbskull, his third album since that long break and first in three years. "I made mistakes along the way/Never took the advice they gave," he sings on the album's sweetly sour closer. "But I'm still here/And I'm just fine." Once again, he's again made the choice he detailed back in 2010, but this time, the persistence seems permanent, the decision to live as final as death itself.

Amid all this mortality talk, it deserves mention that Wolfe is an incredible pop-rock craftsman. On this self-produced album, Wolfe, North Carolina's answer to the similarly self-styled musical auteur John Vanderslice, plays every instrument, from the peppy drums and agile guitars that interlock during the propulsive "Fragment of a Dream" to the chiming bells and charming treble of the dreamlike and lovestruck "Jesus Eyes." Wolfe seems an erudite descendent of both Weezer and The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys and Britpop.

These melodic touchstones, along with a voice that tries still to charm even when it's sharing very bad news, allow Wolfe to wade through difficult subject matters without being swallowed in his own sadness. "Read My Mind" finds the narrator stumbling "down to the lowest place I know," while "Cloud Cuckoo" limns disappointment as a merciless cycle that won't let go, despite attempts at self-immolation or simply checking out. Indeed, Wolfe now seems to have accepted life's challenges as the scheduled entertainment on the way toward the exit. He turns them not into threats but now jokes, opportunities for levity in an existence that requires it: "Fantasy keeps all us real people busy," he opines during the title track, a slow-rising anthem that illustrates the quest for acceptance during its six-minute runtime. "Distracted by nonsense and everything petty."

"Numbskull" works to let go of delusions— of riches, of superiority, of comfort—and to accept toil as the mere toll of life. Wolfe released Storage and Cynics Need Love Too through the Carrboro imprint Odessa Records. But this is the first album he's self-released since earning any attention as a songwriter; he's issuing it through Tangible Formats, the name of his one-man company that manufactures albums in his Carrboro home. The career move fits Wolfe's hopeful resignation almost too perfectly: No one's going to live and die (and craft and cut your albums) quite like you.

Record label: Tangible Formats

This article appeared in print with the headline "Production of self"

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