For those of us who grew up listening to Paul Weller, possibly even those who grew up around people listening to Paul Weller, there is a thrill each time a new album is released. Not quite a rush of excitement, more like respectful curiosity. What direction has he gone in? Who is he writing with? Will he ever win over his die-hard Jam fans? What’s his hair like?
Therein lies the beauty of Weller. He is an unstoppable creative force and appears to never put himself under any constraints. In short, he does what he wants; it just might not be what you want. Look at his track record; He broke up the Jam at the peak of their popularity for no apparent reason. He formed the Style Council whose entire being was ostensibly anathema to his existing fans (despite sounding similar to The Gift era Jam.) He shed the traditional Mod imagery and contrary to his fan-bestowed latter-day ‘Modfather’ moniker he never looked back – chances are if you asked him how he felt about that nickname he’d give you a filthy look. Instead of settling into a cosy-ish life he made people, fans and media alike, move the goalposts and effectively redefined what a Mod was supposed to look like. At the peak of his solo career, arguably his Wild Wood and Stanley Road era, his gruff soulful voice was heavily imbued with pathos as he re-lived his youth. His stock at the highest it had been since the early 1980s was rising by the day. Steve Craddock, Noel Gallagher and Graham Coxon all worshiped at Weller’s altar and rather than capitalise on the lucrative, shambling cultural regression that was Britpop, he dropped the shoulder and sold the world a dummy. Weller mk. III was off again and nobody had any idea who was coming back.
So, rather than go further into attempting to position Weller, let’s just take this album for what it is. Brilliant. The opening track, ‘White Sky’ is a chugging, out and out rocker with Weller’s voice heavily treated but still sounding unmistakable. It is about as straightforward as his music has been for years but the spiraling guitars and production techniques are playful nods to his previous and more experimental output. The piano-led ‘Saturn’s Pattern’ and ‘Going My Way’ are delicious examples of the kind of juxtaposition Weller is famed for. Each are part Chili Gonzales and part balladeering Nick Cave but they are both arch to the point of being meta and still beautifully crafted.
‘Long Time’, featuring the Styrpes’ Josh McClorey, a jolt back into weapons-grade distortion replete with howls and very little else. Unburdened by a chorus it is probably the weakest track on the album but as it segues into ‘Pick It Up’ it is quickly forgotten. The latter is sumptuously groovy psychedelic lesson in how to slow-jam. Gorgeously produced, if this isn’t stretched out over ten minutes live there is something wrong. As the man himself sings “whatever happens” over the breakdown we can finally bridge the Weller of old with the silver-haired geezer we see before us now.
The album’s second half is where the production looks to become the star of the show. Stan Kybert and Paul Weller have pushed things as far as they can without creating a monster; ‘Where I Should Be’ and ‘Phoenix’ moving from soul to jazz to an Arthur Lee-inspired blend of both. Both tracks have elaborate breakdowns full of weird little soundbites that, maybe unlike his last few albums, enhance without being superfluous. ‘In The Car’ is a bluesy little nugget of experimentation. Built around a simple guitar riff it almost feels as though Weller and Kypert decided to just throw everything at it, it is full of movement and little cadences which add the the hymn-like melody.
Finishing on ‘These City Streets’ which could be straight off the soundtrack to Taxi Driver, Weller has surpassed his own creative watermark. Not only the album’s best track, it is the most universal music he has created in years. Once again he gives us a solid groove which feels embanked by guitars, assorted wind instruments and Weller’s smoky, soulful timbre. The song reclaims some of the ground conceded to production and is as well-written a song as you’re likely to hear from him. Make what you will of the lyrical refrain which sees us to the door, “still got a way to go”, but it caps off his best album in nearly two decades and once again renders the man himself as an inimitable and oft-under appreciated gem of our time.